‘Man’ says one of the characters in Cally Phillips’s extraordinary stage play, Powerplay, ‘it’s just hockey.’ To which Canadian Tom responds, ‘Just hockey. And life’s just breathing. Hockey isn’t just a game, Jamie, it’s a complex set of rituals. Tactics and rituals. Like life. It’s how you live your life.’
Tom’s observation lies at the very heart of this complex, accomplished and highly original drama, which parallels the interaction of the central characters with a game of ice hockey, observing just how many relationships between men and women, men and men, have the imposition of power at their heart.
The characters are four men and two women, as well as the ‘Ref’ who cleverly comments on the action in hockey terms. ‘He is, at the same time, of the game and apart from the game. He’s like God if you will,’ as the playwright explains right from the start. Far from obscuring the action, this commentary illuminates each of a succession of small scenes, the interactions between the various characters, and throws them into high relief as a kind of ritual battle, like the complex set of ‘tactics and rituals’ which lie at the heart of ice hockey – or, indeed, of any game which is deeply embedded in a country or a community.
To understand something of this, you have to know that ice hockey is to the US, but even more so to Canada as, for example, football is to Scotland. Baseball plays a similar role in the US. All of these are so much more than ‘just a game’ no matter how much detracters might wish it were otherwise. We’re not talking about success or failure here, so much as the traditional rooting of a game in a community, so that when the Scottish media – or your average Scottish male – talk about ‘sports’ what they really mean, like it or not, is football. Such games take on the characteristics of an idea and an ideal which overrides everything else – remember Field of Dreams which was about the nature of the game itself, and its place in the American psyche, quite as much as it was about Ray Kinsella’s ‘dream’?
Powerplay explores that idea, bringing the rules of life and love into hockey and the deeper significance of hockey into the lives of the characters. The play is structured around a typical hockey game with all the accompanying razzmatazz and music, with the Ref’s commentary entirely accurate in hockey terms. But his commentary cleverly illuminates the emotional powerplay which is also at work, the interactions: moving, vicious, exciting, humorous, between the various characters. The skill in matching this authentic hockey commentary to the action is one of the great joys of this playscript.
The play makes good reading, perhaps even more so if you have some knowledge of the supreme excitement generated by a hockey – or indeed any team game – but it would be even better to see it in performance. The playwright specifies music and video projections all the way through, which take the audience through the game in parallel to the emotional games which are being played out on stage (or, better still, on a rink!)
Finally – although ice hockey involves a swift and constant interchange of players, there can only be five players plus a netminder, per team, on the ice at any one time. A team is ‘on the powerplay’ when at least one member of the opposing team is in the penalty box (‘sin bin’ as it’s generally known) which means that their on-ice numbers are temporarily reduced to four, and occasionally three, plus netminder, giving the other team a distinct and often deadly advantage. Goals are frequently scored ‘on the powerplay’. But of course ‘penalties are part of the game’ says one of the characters – in life as in hockey – and ‘you’ve got to keep moving your feet or you’re history.’
Find out more about Cally Phillips