Sydney Festival: dancing boxers see stars in Beautiful Burnout

19 January 2012

'Beautiful Burnout' tells the story of five young boxers fighting to see their name in lights.
'Beautiful Burnout' tells the story of five young boxers fighting to see their name in lights.

With the 2012 Sydney Festival reaching its half-way point, 'beautiful burnout' may sound like the condition of some Sydneysiders unsure which way to turn as they try to absorb as much of the annual cultural feast as they can. This Australian premiere lands a punch to carry them through the remaining 10 days.

Beautiful Burnout transports its audience to Bobby "I am God" Burgess's small gym in working-class Glasgow, seating us ringside in the Seymour Centre as we watch five young amateur boxers punch, sweat and skip in pursuit of seeing their name up in lights.

Tales of boxing as a means to escape a life of drudgery and little promise are by no means new, but this production from the UK's Frantic Assembly and National Theatre of Scotland delivers a knockout spectacle as co-directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett push their wonderful ensemble of actors through a punishing series of intensely physical rounds, framed by fast-moving lighting and video effects and propelled by a pulsating soundtrack from British electronic group Underworld.

These high-energy choreographed sequences are interspersed with short scenes that pass with the rapidity of a boxing round thanks to fizzing dialogue and monologues straight from the Glasgow streets as the boxers chart their course to stardom. ("Things I give up for this," says gym newcomer Cameron Burns, memorably played by the perma-grinning Kevin Guthrie. "Shoplifting. Borrowing cars. Smoking - tobacco and weed. Girlfriends. I still do shagging … but only on Friday and Saturday.")

His rival Ajay Chopra (Taqi Nazeer) frequently vexes Burgess, and raises laughter from the audience, as he develops his own brand of showmanship, but it's not all whimsical. The only female boxer among the group - Vicki Manderson playing the 'battling lassie' Dina Massie - uses the ring as a means to create a protective cocoon against her troubled home life and to channel her urge for violence.

At times, the choreography becomes a little more abstract which - from the perspective of this spectator at least - can detract from the absorbing kinetic impact of the boxing and training scenes. But when we reach the show's climactic fight, the contenders dripping with sweat, the action reaches a new level altogether as the stage spins and the bank of video screens crackles with energy.

As the combatants meet in the middle of the ring, the choreography draws on the latest technical wonders of sports broadcasting. Full-speed sparring suddenly freezes before proceeding in high-definition slow motion at the point of impact - enabling the boxing to become almost balletic as we see the innermost hopes and fears of the fighters while they wait for the punch to land. Will they see their name in lights, or will they hit the canvas and see stars in a different way entirely?

Tensions and conflicts such as these are the constant thread throughout Beautiful Burnout- tensions between the brutal and balletic; between the need for adhering to collective discipline and the search for individuality; between striving for physical perfection and the persistent, but often unspoken, risk of catastrophic physical injury.

Although the young boxers sometimes sidestep these tensions in their headlong rush to the ring, they are played out beautifully by Blythe Duff, in the role of Cameron's mother Carlotta, as she reveals her tangled emotions while attending to her son's laundry and eating needs.

While Cameron - her "wee white mouse with a heart of a lion" - progresses through the amateur ranks and stands on the edge of a professional bout, she opens her own heart to us (and to her washing machine and freezer) trying to balance her desire for Cameron's success with the fear of what could go wrong.

By the time Cameron enters the ring, on the cusp of professional success, we share her conflicted emotions of delight and disgust. And, perhaps, as the final bell sounds, that conflict will never be resolved for some.

Beautiful Burnout runs at the Seymour Centre, the University of Sydney's performing arts centre, until 29 January.

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