Two years ago, theatre-makers Eleanor Bishop and Julia Croft found themselves deep in a Tony Veitch Google hole that they just couldn’t claw their way out of. Searching for a project that they could collaborate on, they stumbled upon angry inspiration in the form of one of New Zealand’s most infamous examples of domestic violence, igniting a creative spark that would burn with increasing intensity through a series of national scandals involving The Chiefs, the court case of Scott Kuggeleijn, and Wellington College.
New Zealand has a toxic masculinity problem, Bishop and Croft say. They sit around an enormous boardroom table at Auckland Theatre Company’s flood-beleaguered Dominion Road offices during the hour before rehearsal, musing on the context and deeper meanings of their work.
Tony Veitch may have inadvertently provided a catalyst, but Bishop and Croft knew that there was a need to take a probing look at Kiwi masculinity at a cultural level. They wanted to deconstruct the dark side of home grown machismo and arrived – fittingly – at a reworking of the iconic play Foreskin’s Lament.
It is a bold move. Greg McGee’s 1980 masterpiece has, as Bishop points out, both “baggage” in terms of the audience’s expectations, and gravitas. It left early audiences sitting in stunned silence, contemplating rugby culture in ways they’d never been exposed to before. BOYS, Bishop’s adaptation of McGee’s classic, goes a step further.
“I think that the play was totally subversive in its time, and still is – around masculine culture promoting violence against other men,” Bishop says. “The conversation that we’re trying to insert into the play is that violence against men by men and violence against women by men are related.”
Why? Because not much has changed since 1980. “It’s surprising to me how little [Foreskin’s Lament] feels dated almost 40 years down the track,” Croft says. “Attitudes about women that are prevalent in the play have changed nowhere near as much as we’d like to think. We’ve plastered a veneer in this country on top of some really, really deep misogyny. It’s so much part of the culture, you can’t even find it, because it’s so deeply ingrained in everything.”
I ask them how they think rape culture plays out in our modern context. Croft gives a sardonic laugh. “Should we just write a list?”
“When you get a group of men into an intimate space without women, one of the ways that they have of relating to each other is to objectify women, to boast about sexual conquests, to casually joke sometimes about sexual violence,” Bishop adds. “I don’t think that’s changed at all.”
The timing of BOYS, with Donald Trump’s “locker-room talk” dismissal of a recording of him boasting about grabbing women by the pussy still reverberating around the world, feels urgent. Somewhat presciently, McGee set the scene perfectly decades ago.
“The characters [in Foreskin’s Lament] are a regional/local rugby team and it opens in a locker-room,” Bishop explains, “Foreskin is the main character, and [the play] is about him being in this environment and questioning that culture of violence and competition.”
Questioning the culture is high on the agenda for the team behind BOYS. “I guess my hope is that particularly the young men that come and see [the play], and older men too, are a bit more aware of the language they’re using and the jokes they’re making and the behaviour they’re exhibiting, not only in themselves but what they’re seeing other people do,” Croft says. “You know, not intervening when your mate says something about a woman’s arse. You could turn around and go, ‘don’t do that’.”
BOYS aims to shine a light on the things people would rather not talk about. “We wanted to make a space where young men and women could be together and having that conversation with each other in a way that wasn’t really hostile,” Bishop says. Humour also plays a significant role. “There are obviously still fun jokes about how men are like, “I’m not involved in this…. Not all men,” so we’re acknowledging that frustration but also trying to move past it to work together and be on the same team and be allies to each other.”
Comedy is especially important in our local context. “New Zealand audiences are not as used to being uncomfortable in a theatre space. Compared to being overseas, New Zealand audiences really want to be entertained all the time in a way where maybe in Europe they’re more comfortable sitting with some other things,” Croft adds. “I find that humour is really useful, particularly for New Zealanders. It opens people up, it relaxes people.”
Media scandals can also provide a way in for people who otherwise might struggle to engage with a difficult topic, Bishop suggests. “I think that some of those media cases are in a weird way accessible because then someone gets to play Paul Henry, and that’s, like, real funny.”
National outrage over examples of sexism and misogyny has become more common over the last decade, but the public narrative can sometimes lose sight of the fact that underlying each media storm – from the Roast Busters to The Chiefs – are shameful statistics indicating that violence against women is widespread in New Zealand. When BOYS hits the stage, there will be a number of women in the room who have experienced misogyny first hand, Croft and Bishop among them.
“The word ‘consent’ was not even in our language when I was a teenager and I now look back on things that happened to me and things that happened to my friends and go, ‘there was no consent, that wasn’t consensual,’ but you just didn’t have the language at the time to be able to call things what they were,” Croft says. “I got really reflective on the daily microaggressions, the kinds of things that would happen to me as a young woman – just being grabbed, or being grinded on or being yelled at – and how it took me until I was in my late twenties to realise that that wasn’t okay.”
“All of my work comes from the same bodies of experiences of groping, coercion, but I think [BOYS] came for me because I was doing this piece called Jane Doe in colleges in the States,” Bishop says. “It’s about rape cases and I just sort of realised how important that show was in creating a female space that men could enter into safely but also be made aware of their complicity. [But there was] a lack of space within that show, just because of the nature of it, to talk about masculinity.”
“Part of the investigation of this play is looking at how men are also hurt and harmed by this culture,” Croft says, pointing to stigma surrounding mental health and suicide statistics as examples of toxic masculinity. “The violence that [men] enact [is] something that is coming out of those patriarchal gender roles, which feel to me very pronounced in New Zealand.”
“We’re starting with rugby but trying to make it about bigger questions around our culture in general and around masculine culture,” Bishop says. “I think there’s still within masculine culture a huge emphasis on, like, “yeah, you know, we just get into fights every weekend.” There’s pride in some of the stories that [young men] tell about the fights they get in.”
If, hypothetically speaking, a Wellington College boy were to sit in the audience one night, Croft hopes that he would absorb some of the messages embedded in the play. “Or any young man, because I don’t think any young man hasn’t been privy to something that is misogynistic or violent.”
Helming a project focusing on young men and masculinity was existentially difficult at first for the co-directors, but they both believe that male allies are important. “[Men becoming allies] is the only way we’re going to end sexual violence,” Bishop says.
Croft believes that the inclusion of men can be done in a way that doesn’t negatively impact women. “I think part of it is men realising what being an ally looks like, and that isn’t speaking for or speaking on behalf of, or taking space from women.”
Which is something the young men in the play have absorbed as part of the rehearsal process. “[They] now have language to talk to their guy mates, and they’re supporting each other in that way, and helping each other to stand up,” Bishop says. “That’s what we need [young men] to do, because we can’t.”
Using theatre to create change is important to Bishop. “Why I like theatre is that it’s quite utopian, in a way. You get to create the world that you want to see. You do that on the stage itself and you also do that in the process. You’re practising the values that you want to put into the world when you’re making a play.”
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” Croft adds. “I’ve been in a lot of male led rehearsal rooms where you cry silently in the toilets and I have no interest in building that kind of culture. Trying to build a feminist culture in the room is really exciting.”
That feminist rehearsal room is slowly filling now, as a steady trickle of cast members arrive for the night’s work. Croft and Bishop look on, clearly eager to get started. Soon, their utopia will be out of their hands.
BOYS has a difficult task ahead, challenging a culture that remains staunchly embedded in the Kiwi psyche, but Croft is optimistic. “There’s this great quote that Eleanor has put in the show from rugby rules, talking about a maul. ‘If you break the bind, the whole thing separates’. We want to empower men in those very male spaces to call each other out.”
Auckland Theatre Company’s BOYS opens tonight at the ASB Waterfront Theatre as part of the Here and Now Festival.