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Ahilan Ratnamohan, The Football Diaries Ahilan Ratnamohan, The Football Diaries
photo James Brown
THE YEAR 1974 IS CENTRAL TO THE FOOTBALL DIARIES. IT IS THE YEAR THAT PROTAGONIST AHILAN RATNAMOHAN’S PARENTS MIGRATED FROM SRI LANKA TO AUSTRALIA TO STUDY AND THE YEAR THAT THE DUTCH BROUGHT TOTAL FOOTBALL TO THE WORLD CUP. THE FOOTBALL DIARIES BRAIDS THESE TWIN HISTORIES—OF FAMILY AND FOOTBALL—TOGETHER TO CREATE A SHOW THAT IS DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE AND SURPRISINGLY MOVING.

Born in Australia to Tamil parents in the 1980s, by the age of 18 Ratnamohan was playing professional football in Europe. The journey to this point is long, winding, and occasionally treacherous. In one of the first scenes, he is running in a forest, exhausted and on the edge of an endorphin-induced delirium: we are in Germany, where Ratnamohan has been toiling with a second-tier club. We flash back a few months to Malmö, Sweden, where he was trialling with the professional football team there. Then back a few years to Sydney, where schoolyard soccer is “black versus whites, ethnics versus skips. If you’re a halfy, stay in the middle, we’ll sort you out later.” Finally, we flash back a few decades so that Ratnamohan can introduce us to his heroes, the two Johans—Cruyff and Neeskens—of Total Football fame.

This time-travelling is accompanied by much philosophising. If you have ever heard an elite athlete speak about their sport you will know they approach zen-like states during play and can deliver zen-like aphorisms afterwards. (Think for instance of Zinedine Zidane’s claim that “When you are immersed in the game, you don’t really hear the crowd. You can almost decide for yourself what you want to hear. I can hear someone whisper in the ear of the person next to them”, or of Wayne Gretzky “I do not skate to where the puck is, but to where it will be.”)Ratnamohan is no different, intoning “I do not make mistakes; before making a mistake, I do not make it.” In this error-free world, football approaches utopia: there is no such thing as skin colour and the ball does not care who strikes it. The fully functioning team resembles a fully functioning community where someone willingly stands out on the lonely wing, sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

For all its utopian potential, however, football often falls far short. Indeed, the game is rife with racism and we see footage of Paolo Di Camio’s infamous straight-armed salute as well as Samuel Eto’o stopping the game and threatening to leave the pitch as he begs the crowd—No más—to stop their monkey chants. It is clear that soccer is starting to sour for Ratnamohan and it is not long before he pushes an injury too far and has to sit on the sidelines for three months before eventually coming home to Sydney and, luckily for us, the stage.

This particular stage is a small studio space with three walls: the back wall serving as a screen for projections and the side two as sparring partners for training sessions with the ball. Sometimes these sessions are a battle, other times they are ballet. Director and devisor Lee Wilson draws a vast physical vocabulary from Ratnamohan, who can tease, tussle and tango with the ball and then, just as easily, turn a delicate pirouette on it or partner a tender pas de deux. Every once in a while it feels as if this might become a pas de trois or trente, as the ball sails towards the audience, only to stop just short. This sense of restraint is also evident in the sections where Ratnamohan addresses the audience directly—the stories are elliptical, evocative and often self-deprecating. Yet even as he charms us, he also challenges us, as when he coolly assesses spectators as potential footballers: “I’ve bet you’ve got fast twitch muscle fibres”, he says, or “I’m worried about his vision.”

In fact our vision is excellent thanks to Lara Thoms and Fred Rodriguez’s videos, which manage to evoke the blurred vision of a player in training, the kaleidoscopic vision of a player ‘in the zone’, and the retro vision of a player dancing with ghosts: his heroes; his parents; his school mates; his younger self; even his future, older self. This sense of spectrality is amplified by Mirabelle Wouters’ lighting, which has Ratnamohan dancing with his own pink, green, yellow and grey shadows. Similarly, when he says “I can hear football”, we can too, through James Brown’s soundscape which enables us to appreciate football as Ratnamohan might—as rhythm, refrain, pulse, pitch and climax. Or in the language of dance that recurs throughout the piece, as ballet, tango and tap.

The many mentions of dance recall another, and as the show comes to a conclusion, and Ratnamohan steadies himself, breathing, balancing the ball on his head, I think of the last line of Yeats’ poem Among Schoolchildren: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” In the language of football, how can we know the player from the play? In the case of Cryuff, we can’t; he now has a turn named after him. Likewise, in the case of The Football Diaries and Ratnamohan, it’s impossible to separate the two. No one else could have created this work and no one else could have performed it with such grace, agility and humility.


The Football Diaries, performer, devisor Ahilan Ratnamohan, director, devisor Lee Wilson, sound artist James Brown, video Lara Thoms, Fred Rodriguez, set & lighting design Mirabelle Wouters, dramaturg Alicia Talbot; Urban Theatre Projects, Bankstown, Sydney, April 22-May 2

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 42

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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