Following two seasons in Perth and one at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the award-winning tragi-comedy The Pride is premiering in Sydney this week. Zoe Pepper, the writer and director, spoke about lions, humans and the surprising similarities between the hunt for power in the savannah and in the suburbs.
The Pride is, at its core, a story about a family. “The starting point for it was taking the social patterns of lions and what happens if you gave the behaviours of lions human sympathies and human characteristics, and looked at the similarities between lion behaviour and human behaviour”, says Pepper. “We looked at this one aspect of lion behaviour called the takeover – normally in a lion pride there are three or four lionesses and then one lion who is the head honcho of the lion pride and he starts to get old and there are other lions who will challenge that lion for his pride and they fight to the death – usually the young lion wins…we looked that scenario and overlaid it on a human context”. So she must have watched a lot of David Attenborough documentaries as research? “I did do a bit of a David Attenborough marathon”, she laughs.
In The Pride, Bruce is the alpha male threatened by his stronger and more attractive neighbour James. “The scenario about coming in and taking over the family sounds really brutal and far from the human experience… [but] as soon as you put love into that scenario and rationalise these behaviours with human emotions they become a lot more palatable, but the similarities are quite striking in terms of the cyclical nature of the relationships,” says Pepper. She proposes that The Pride is essentially “a reverse coming of age story, in the sense that it’s about a guy who’s past his prime and is losing his grip on his power, and it’s about him becoming less capable and a bit redundant – it sounds a bit bleak but we do it in a funny way”.
Pepper is quick to point out that The Pride is a collaborative work, and that she wrote the play with the three cast members – Adriane Daff, Brendan Ewing and Russell Leonard. “In the writers room I always work collaboratively with my actors, so we generated the script through improvisation and then we transcribed a lot of the improvisations and whittled them down to get to the script, so it’s very much a project that myself and the three cast have a lot of ownership of and put a lot of ourselves into”. Pepper insists that the play is “so much more about the physical than the text in a lot of ways, more like how it is in a conversation in real life”.
The Pride is “an irreverent comedy that has a dark side that creeps up on you” and the most obvious comedic element is in the costuming, with cast wearing what Pepper calls “very daggy lion suits”. Did this humour translate to an overseas audience? “We got some really great reviews and we got nominated for an award [the Total Theatre Award for Innovation, Experimentation & Playing with Form], so it was a pretty successful run – Edinburgh is a notoriously tough market … People found it confronting how much it sat on the line between tragedy and comedy and it flicked between the two in an instant really, and people found that really different and unusual”.
The Pride is at Bondi Pavilion Theatre, Bondi Beach from Thursday 20 March to Saturday 5 April.