Backstage

ARCHIVE FEATURE: I Heart John McEnroe (2014)

For this week’s archive feature strap in as we visit a relatively recent production, ‘I Heart John McEnroe,’ an existential romp developed by indie theatre company Uninvited Guests.

As a public figure from the age of 17, McEnroe has entered the western world’s cultural lexicon, with numerous publications and footage of him (and his infamous temper) available for interpretation. In this production, four actors – Luke Mullins, Bert LaBonte, a heavily pregnant Katherine Tonkin (and later her ‘substitute’ Natasha Herbert) – are tasked with the goal of presenting a precise and unbiased theatrical portrait of the former tennis great. They fail.

Through attempts to unpack the myth of McEnroe – the athlete, the celebrity, the father, the hot head, the art collector and the commentator-  they wrestle with ideas of competition, presentation and narrative. Presented through a Citizen Kane-like theatrical collage filtered through the performers’ own personal histories , I Heart John McEnroe sees its narrayive derailed by constant bickering and manipulation amongst the performers. What follows is a fierce and funny competition where there can only be one winner.

In creating the work, Uninvited Guests took inspiration directly from McEnroe quotes, David Foster Wallace’s writings on tennis, interviews about acting with Orson Welles and transcripts of YouTube clips of irate celebrities caught unawares. Aesthetically, the production payed homage to the YouTube generation and GLTBIQ, inhabiting a high camp and high macabre landscape. Sections of the work were improvised and others scripted to create a unique experience each night complete with short shorts, tennis tantrums and actor overshares in order to paint a picture of just how ridiculous obsession and competition are.

Nominated for five Green Room Awards including Best Director, I Heart John McEnroe won one for Best Ensemble. Critics praised the work, many singling out the talent of the performers and the eccentric and unexpected twists and turns of the narrative.

The Age gave the work four stars declaring:

★★★★
“From the wacky funsters at Uninvited Guests comes I Heart John McEnroe, a playful piece of devised theatre that is, at least superficially, a biographical tribute to the bad boy of ’80s tennis… Director Clare Watson’s clever, game-like approach has developed a consistently entertaining style of performance full of visual and dramatic surprises, played out against a nostalgia-riddled, dog-eat-dog sound design from Jethro Woodward. It’s great fun.”

 

Arts Review also admired the production, reading into the theatrical subtext:

“Do not be mistaken. This is not a show about John McEnroe. It’s not even, really, a show about rage. (After all, how would you examine an emotion without any context of its origin?) This is, like all good theatre, a show about people. About how we evaluate each other, how we manipulate each other to suit our means and how quickly we can become ridiculous and childish in the face of defeat… I Heart John McEnroe is an entertaining, insightful piece of theatre. It is well realised and left the audience laughing, thinking and ultimately satisfied.”

 

The Herald Sun praised the ensemble, noting the quality of acting from each performer:

“The adult actors shift from playing McEnroe to playing themselves as they confront their own anger or taunt other actors to trigger angry outbursts in each other.
The cruel, personal teasing sparks a comically sulky scene from Mullins, who is hassled for not being masculine enough to play McEnroe. In a later scene, LaBonte deals with racial slurs from McEnroe’s celebrity friends when he plays African-American tennis player Arthur Ash… There are very funny moments, including Herbert’s hilarious depiction of Tatum O’Neill, McEnroe’s young wife, crawling along the tennis court white lines as if snorting cocaine. Tonkin is pregnant (in real life), which provides plenty of comic mileage, including Herbert hurtling on stage to be Tonkin’s mistreated but relentlessly cheerful substitute in any vigorous choreography.”

 

 

Uninvited Guests is an independent theatre company established in 2004, creating innovative theatrical installation that celebrates and investigates the use of alternative, intimate and epic spaces for performance. The work of the company interrogates the role and responsibility of the audience.

The full team attached to this production are listed below.

Written and Created by
CLARE WATSON
Co-Creators
LUKE MULLINS, KATHERINE TONKIN

Dramaturged by
DECLAN GREENE
Designed
JONATHON OXLADE
Lighting Design
RICHARD VABRE
Sound Designer and Composer
KELLY RYALL
Performed by
LUKE MULLINS, KATHERINE TONKIN

Photography

LACHLAN WOODS

 

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