⛹️‍♂️ A Dodgeball Named Desire by Bloomshed

A gloriously insane paean to the stage and everything it can contain.

⛹️‍♂️ A Dodgeball Named Desire by Bloomshed
Image: Ryan Hamilton

One of my earliest lectures in my theatre degree was from Felix Nobis, as he detailed theatre’s long history of being on death’s door. Theatre is a dying art form, and it always has been it seems. Sometimes it’s been religious threats, political threats, economic threats, and now in 2023 Bloomshed posits that it might just be that no one gives a shit about it. Sport is better anyways.

A Dodgeball Named Desire is a surprisingly faithful (albeit abstracted) adaption of Tennessee William’s iconic A Streetcar Named Desire. Bloomshed swaps Elysian Fields for a dodgeball court, cuts Mitch and a whole raft of other characters, triples the amount of Blanches, double casts Tennessee Williams as Stella, and asks the entirety of the 17 billion dollar Australian sports industry to step in to the play the role of Stanley.

This is bonkers and brilliant theatre for a new age. Tennessee Williams starts us off with a bleak reflection on the state of theatre and the need for spectacle in the face of all of theatre’s competition. And tonight, he tells us, that spectacle is dodgeball. Real, live, dodgeball. Stanley vs Blanche. Sport vs Theatre. A fight to the end.

I’m not sure where to start heaping the praise on this production, it’s just that slick.

John Collopy’s lighting turns fortyfivedownstairs into a stadium, or a temple, or a theatre (they’re all the same thing anyways). The field of play is literally lit up under the glare of stadium lights when needed, and in moments of theatricality the space shrinks to become an intimate lens into Blanche’s mind.

Samantha Hastings’ simply brilliant set design turns the awkward pillars that define the stage of fortyfivedownstair into the centrepiece of the competition, with Blanche after Blanche after Blanche taking refuge behind them. A golden bathtub dominates one end of the traverse stage, while the other is defined by the accoutrement of a sports hall.

Justin Gardam’s sound design is a lurid and enchanting reinterpretation of the sound of New Orleans described in William’s original text. I remember something that sounded like pianos being dragged around upstairs playing while we took our seats and thought that framed the show well.

There’s heapings of audience participation during the show’s snappy 75 minutes too. If you’re brave enough you’re even offered the opportunity to actually get up and play dodgeball, supporting Blanche of course. And the show’s final moment is a brilliant invitation to the audience to heap their flores para los muertos onto Blanche’s broken body.

Like the play, Blanche loses in the end. And like real life, Theatre loses in the end. Sport/Stanley decimates Theatre/Blanche in a moment of abject cruelty, and then the show ends. Lights up. Bows. Everything is fine. Theatre isn’t saved today, but we have witnessed a spectacle: the spectacle of a dying art form made to live out another day.

The path to making a career in theatre is muddy and overgrown. There’s not enough funding, theatre schools are getting shut down or restructured, and not enough audiences are coming through the front door. But despite that reality, there was a part of me that couldn’t help but feel it indulgent to depict that on stage: ‘Yes, theatre’s under threat, but couldn’t we tell a story about something other than theatre?’

I know the value of theatre. I fucking love cramming myself into dark rooms with strangers to witness life, and I hope everyone who hasn’t gets to experience it someday. When Bloomshed decided to turn their attention to theatre and it’s quandaries part of me felt like it squandered an opportunity to tell stories about ‘real people’ (read: non-theatre-makers), about the people who we ostensibly need to be getting into the theatre in the first place.

But Dodgeball isn’t for everyone. It is deeply concerned with itself, its existence, and whether or not it has a right to one at all. It’s asking big questions about theatre—none that haven’t been asked a million times before—but ones we still haven’t answered.

If theatre is as culturally irrelevant as its political support suggests, then it seems futile to rebut that on stage. But if you truly do believe in theatre and all the magic that it possesses, then of course you have to make that rebuttal on stage. So that’s what A Dodgeball Named Desire is: a gloriously insane paean to the stage and everything it can contain.

Fleur Kilpatrick said in a 2019 interview with AussieTheatre about her show WHALE, which confronted climate change head on:

There is always the question of ‘am I preaching to the choir’. It took me years to realise that the choir needs support, rallying and to be told that they are powerful.

Maybe Dodgeball is a rallying cry to us, as theatre-makers, to keep doing what we do. As it stands, Blanche’s story ends with tears and fifty dodgeballs pummeling her lifeless body but the power of theatre—as Boal’s Forum Theatre teaches us—is that we can re-stage it. We can do it better next time, and we can change the ending.

On the way home from fortyfivedownstairs I sat in the front seat of a car hurtling down the Monash Freeway while some of my closest friends rapped Hamilton better than I ever could. I felt like I’d just witnessed one of the most visionary shows I’d ever seen—but I also felt despair. For theatre, for stories, and for ever finding enough time and money to tell them.

But now, writing this two days later, I think we just might be able to change that.

A Dodgeball Named Desire runs at fortyfivedownstairs until October 29.