Originally published on Exeunt
The cavemen tendencies of fight or flight, kill or be killed, all come rushing to the fore in a boxing match, and not just for the contenders themselves. At opposing corners are a team of coaches (or cornermen) whose job it is to motivate their representative, encourage all those animalistic qualities to explode out with such power as to literally beat the competition. All around the ring where the fists fly and the blood gushes out are spectators, drawn to the smell of testosterone and sweat, their own bodies craving the resulting adrenaline rush that perpetuates this vicious cycle. Once the boxers themselves have taken enough beatings, they are cast aside by their management who are on the lookout for younger potential talent, ready to sell them the dream of guts and glory, to naturally boost their protégé’s egos to the point at which they can unleash all of their pent up energy in the ring. Once again the cycle continues.
Oli Forsyth’s play Cornermen focusses on three such coaches, ready to take another boxer to the big leagues and savour the taste of success. Drew (Jesse Rutherford), Mickey (James Barbour) and Joey (Forsyth), however, aren’t necessarily on the hunt for a winner; if anything they would prefer to stay in their comfort zone and pick a journeyman, someone who gets paid to lose the fights. Making money from defeat is still money after all, but without the pressure of remaining on a winning streak. For the managers, it’s a win-win. Forsyth deftly writes three characters who are ultimately fearful of the very thing that makes their sport such a wealthy enterprise. Young amateur Sid (Andrew Livingstone) catches their eye, a perfect balance of capability and confidence yet not so unbeatable as to challenge for the title. That is, until Sid turns out to be more than they expected – lightning fast with a menacing look in his eye, Livingstone captures the sullen persona of a 20-something party animal propelled beyond his means.
Cornermen examines the desperate need to be successful no matter the cost to oneself or to others; it exposes the ugly actions that such desperation can result in and grapples with the uneasy choice of sacrifice when it is someone else on the line. It even injects some light-hearted moments to punctuate the serious subject matter. Forsyth’s writing breaks up the key scenes with some much-needed recitative, each coach acting as narrator to keep the story moving forward and remove any risk of boredom setting in. The diversity in each character is refreshing – no coach is quite the same and as such each is able to bounce off the collective energy. Mickey (Barbour) is the ringleader, ambitious and intense with a dry wit; Drew (Rutherford) the more empathetic one, blending into the background for the most part until his passion bursts out at a particularly poignant moment. Joey’s (Forsyth) performance sets him above the rest – his exuberance and comic timing is matched by the pace of his dialogue, precisely judged so as to hit with maximum impact.
This is a show full of publicity and self-promotion of image. From interviews before fights to catching reporters and spouting straplines afterwards, the script calls for a larger cast than is realised with this theatre company. There is an almost constant need for one actor to run off stage and re-appear as a different subsidiary character, which at times blurs the storyline with constant switching. An additional member with a role as “The Press” or “The Media” would benefit the production, a collective representation of those that serve to hype up the sport, bring in the money but ultimately pile on the pressure. Pressure that makes the pulse race, the pupils dilate and the sport become more than just a career – at least, for the boxer that is.
Cornermen was on as part of Incoming Festival. For more information, click here.