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New play kicks goals with tale of AFL and Australia

Liz Hobday -

Award winning actor Ngali Shaw laughs as he acknowledges he's a "pretty fit guy".

To play star footballer Jayma in the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of 37, he's had to be - but such are the physical demands of the show, he's still going home sore after a performance.

The world premiere production, which has so far scored rave reviews, is named for champion player Adam Goodes' jersey number and set against the background of the racial insults he was subject to during his career.

Growing up in Dubbo NSW, Shaw never played AFL and didn't know much about Adam Goodes - he discovered these stories rehearsing for 37.

"I'm in love with learning other people's stories and stuff similar to mine - to have them come to me and say do you want to play this role? I said yeah, one hundred per cent," said Shaw.

37 follows the fortunes of struggling AFL team the Currawongs, from a small coastal town desperate to win a premiership.

The team, and the town, pin their hopes on two Aboriginal recruits, Shaw's Jayma and Tibian Wyles' Sonny - but will racial conflict within the Currawongs derail its desperate bid for a premiership flag?

Sonny and Jayma are dubbed the Marngrook cousins, named after the Aboriginal game that inspired AFL - a game played simply for the joy of it, with no scoreline.

It's a play about AFL, so it follows that 37 is also a story about Australia, looking at racism, colonisation, issues facing Aboriginal people, and the challenges of reconciliation.

The physicality of sport is expressed onstage through dance, choreographed by Waangenga Blanco and director Isaac Drandic, and Shaw's training in ballet and with Bangarra Dance are obvious.

While 37 is at times very funny there are moments of discomfort, and worse, instances of racism that are shocking.

Shaw, who has to hear these slurs on stage every night, says he has become numb to them - but they were the sorts of comments he was subjected to as a teenager.

"I've dealt with this pretty much my entire life, this kind of stuff, it gets easier just to move forward and keep going," he said.

The other actors are good people, said Shaw, and the cast understands the characters they have to portray, awful as some of them turn out to be.

"At the end of the day, it's just acting, and we leave everything on the stage," he said.

One of the complexities for several of the characters in 37 is whether to keep an uncomfortable peace, or endure conflict for the sake of sticking up for what's right - something Shaw also encounters in the rest of his life.

He hopes his next move is back to the small screen, but if that doesn't work out he plans to try his luck in Hollywood, with money from his $50,000 inaugural Brian Walsh Award for best emerging talent, which he won at the 2024 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards.

Shaw has also recently scored a Green Room award nomination for another new Melbourne Theatre Company play, Jacky, staged in 2023.

37 by Nathan Maynard was originally commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company and co-produced with Queensland Theatre.

The show plays at the Southbank Theatre in Melbourne until April 5.

Liz Hobday - AAP

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