In the present, Isa is a skilled young Congolese boxer in Australia coming up on his most important fight yet. In the past, Isa is a child soldier struggling to retain a grip on his humanity, even as he is taught, urged, and threatened to disconnect. Isa may have escaped the physical brutality that deformed his upbringing, but the violent tendrils of the past have a long reach and Isa has to decide which direction to run – away from or towards his guilt.
Pacharo Mzembe was extraordinary as Isa. Whether his vulnerable child self, or as the troubled young man, it was a compelling performance that ran strong throughout the show. The cast – Mandela Mathis, Gideon Mzembe, Ratidzo Mambo, Margo Brown-Ash, and Marcus Johnson were terrific in their multiple roles.
A beauty quality of the performances, Todd McDonald’s direction, and Felix Cross’ sound design, was how Isa’s flashbacks captured the feel of memory. These were not 1:1 objective snapshots of the past, but rather the uncertain, raw, and terrifying ground of a child’s memory of the worse possible events.
Beyond the superb acting, what drives the show forward is percussion: The glorious hip-hop mixtape playing as the audience enter; the staccato pound as the actors (supplemented by members of the Northside Boxing Gym) hit the pads; the vibrations from each fight scene radiating out underneath the seats; the punch-like snap of the transitions as Isa flashes back from a kinder present to an unspeakable past and back again in an instant.
That beat is a powerful engine – all the more so when it drops away for the final scene, a beautifully rendered moment of justice and absolution. Prize Fighter is a wonderful show that delivers an entertaining and moving story, not easily forgotten when you leave the space.
Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre, 189 High Street, Northcote
Performance: Wednesday 10 October 2018 – 8.00pm
Season continues to 20 October 2018
Information and Bookings: www.festival.melbourne
Image: Prize Fighter – photo by Dylan Evans
Review: David Collins