MTC-Ngali-Shaw-and-the-Cast-of-Melbourne-Theatre-Company's-37---photo-by-Pia-JohnsonI moved to Melbourne over 20 years ago and began to really understand this city when I went to the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch a footy match: Collingwood V Adelaide.

Nathan Maynard’s play 37 was developed through the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Next Stage Writers’ Program and was co-produced with Queensland Theatre. If you haven’t gone to a match, it might inspire you to go, but it’s about far more than the final score.

We call it footy because football is a game played all over the world. Footy is ours. If you’re in a posh corporate box or seats that your family buy every year, going to a match gives a freedom to say pretty much anything to anyone because a membership scarf offers the instant support of at least half of the other 80 000 people there – and the hundreds of thousands watching from home or the pub.

You’re part of the story. You know the characters, history and stakes and, at its best, you have no idea what the ending is going to be. Maybe a theatre story is a good metaphor for a sports match?

It’s 2013 and the Currawongs are a country team who have never won a final. Their coach called The General (Syd Brisbane) is determined to get the team and the town those medals; he still wears the only one he won.

Hopes are high because the two new recruits Jayma (Ngali Shaw) and Sonny (Tibian Wyles) are bloody good players and fitting in well with the rest of the team. They go through the initiation that involves a cow’s arse, they nod along with the comments about their Aboriginality, and all is looking good until Jayma comes to practice in a number 37.

37 was Adam Goodes number. In 2014, the Sydney Swan’s star was named Australian of the Year, but in 2013 the booing began and continued every time he played a match until he retired in 2015.

It started when Goodes called out a teenage Collingwood fan for calling him an “ape” – Goodes is Indigenous and known for his ongoing work to combat racism in sport – and she was removed from the stadium.

What followed was weeks of public discussion over racism in sport. Everyone had an opinion. Should a very well-paid professional even react? Surely everyone got that “King Kong” joke made by the president of Collingwood? Can an imaginary spear be violent?

The Currawongs have the same colours as the Collingwood Magpies but it isn’t a black or white issue. The team members reflect opinions and arguments happening all over the country. How do you continue to love a game that isn’t reflecting the values it claims to stand on?

Director and co-choreographer Isaac Drandic works with the excellent cast (Mitchell Brotz, Samuel Buckley, Costa D’Angelo, Thomas Larkin, Eddie Orton, Ben O’Toole, Anthony Standish) to ensure that 37 isn’t a game.

It doesn’t matter who wins those finals medals because so much more is at stake in the town, in the team and in a country that didn’t seem to care that our “footy” was inspired by a game called Marngrook that was played by First Nations people.

Dale Ferguson’s design is every team room but with space for choreographed play (co-choreographed by Waangenga Blanco) that will define how sport can be shown on a stage. From tableaus of flying marks where the entire team literally support each other to the non-stop movement where the team seem to be in each other’s brains, it’s easy to be caught in the beauty and skill of the performance and match until the support disappears.

Sport metaphors abound in storytelling. Sport is storytelling. 37 is a story about our contradictory and confusing obsession with an Australian game that is as much about the communities that are obsessed with it as it is about the teams.

Even if you don’t understand why I was wearing a blue, red and yellow scarf at that match I went to, this important and honest work will leave you understanding why the number 37 continues to matter and why we need to keep telling this story.

Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Performance: Tuesday 12 March 2024
Season continues to 5 April 2024
Information and Bookings: www.mtc.com.au

Following the Melbourne season, 37 will tour to the Bille Brown Theatre – Queensland Theatre from 11 April – 4 May 2024.

Image: Ngali Shaw and the Cast of Melbourne Theatre Company’s 37 – photo by Pia Johnson

Review: Anne-Marie Peard