The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes
My first encounter with Back to Back Theatre was in 2005, when small metal objects premiered at that year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival. Performing the work in the concourse of Flinders Street Station, the actors mingled with rush-hour crowds for an audience seated in a rostrum and fitted with headphones.
The concept – weaving a work of theatre through a public space – was simple, but its effect was startling. Being there was revelatory in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways. It took a while to locate the actors as they performed unobtrusively amid the crowds: as far as the public was concerned, the audience was the real spectacle.
By shifting the relationships between actors, audiences and the world around them, the production showed how permeable and arbitrary these definitions are, and how extraordinary the supposedly ordinary world is. The Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky named this effect ostranenie, the technique of presenting common things in an unfamiliar way in order to enhance perception of the familiar.
Over its three decades of work, Back to Back – a small Geelong-based ensemble of disabled actors who devise their work under the direction of Bruce Gladwin – has mastered the art of ostranenie, in the process becoming one of Australia’s most internationally celebrated contemporary theatre companies. At the core of their theatre is a kind of modest brilliance; I’ve not seen a Back to Back show that hasn’t sought to revolutionise our assumptions about what theatre, performance and life can be.
Each show has opened new artistic ground. Food Court – another Melbourne Festival premiere – was a banal story of bullying that became steadily more and more devastating. Backed by a driving score from the Necks, it culminated with Sarah Mainwaring, an actor with cerebral palsy from an acquired brain injury, naked on stage, rising from the floor to recite Caliban’s speech from The Tempest:
… and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
Even now, more than a decade later, the memory of that moment makes my heart shake. I still can’t imagine a performance in which the tragedy of Caliban’s abasement and stigma is more rawly and truthfully exposed.
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, which premiered at the Melbourne Festival in 2011, employed a heightened theatricality that contrasted with the mundane reality of a working rehearsal room, the action switching between evocations of a theatre work that was never made and the arguments that undermined it. In the process, the actors laid bare the minutiae of social interactions that make fascism possible.
The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, now playing at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, is different again, although it also feels like a logical evolution from their previous work. This time the company’s conscious theatricality is absorbed into the conscious banality of the show’s conceit, although of course it inhabits every moment of the show. It’s a mark of Back to Back’s assurance and skill that they’re able to eschew showiness and instead focus solely on the qualities that have made their work utterly compelling.
The power of Back to Back’s work is always in the performances. The core ensemble has a range of intellectual disabilities, which means that each actor brings to their performance a very particular and perilous sense of exposure. There is no question, at any time, that they aren’t acting, but their disabilities also force them to be wholly themselves on stage, something they share with only the very best actors.
This sense of transparency means that their theatre foregrounds, in a way that few other companies do, the knowledge that the work is being made, in each moment, before our eyes. This calls up a strong sense of presence in the audience, an effortless engagement that’s at the heart of all great theatre. It also does interesting things to time: we’re wholly aware of duration but all sense of its weight is abolished. And it’s never safe theatre: Back to Back’s work is at once gentle and brutal, welcoming and full of spikes.
The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets itself up as a public meeting in Geelong. On an (apparently) empty stage we watch the (apparently) artless setting up of the space: the five performers – Mark Deans, Michael Chan, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price – bring out the chairs, one by one. Behind them on a screen, voice-recognition software is (apparently) translating their dialogue.
All these things are, of course, consciously created, as underlined by the through-composed score by Daniel Farrugia, Luke Howard and Jonathon Zion. The dialogue, including the screen text, has been scripted through years of collaborative improvisation. But the illusion is so complete, the reality so familiar, that all this artifice is almost invisible. Almost.
What follows is an enactment of a disorderly public meeting, in which the performers – purportedly here to inform a neurotypical public about its blindness to its unearned privilege – excavate the relationships between language and reality, via a series of divagations. It begins with the character Scott – wearing an “Autism Pride” T-shirt – instructing Mark on appropriate touching. Touching other people’s groins, he tells him, is not on. Nor is other people touching you. Unless, as Sarah interrupts to explain, you both consent. Masturbation is okay. But only in private, not in public.
Already we’re entering thorny territory. The Australian Journal of Human Rights estimated in 2017 that 90 per cent of Australian women with intellectual disability have suffered sexual abuse, with 68 per cent assaulted before they turn 18. Simmering beneath the dialogue are worlds of hidden pain and shame.
Michael attempts to call the meeting to order, delivering an Acknowledgement of Country that’s derailed by Scott’s correction of his pronunciation. As Michael explains, his Chinese accent means it’s difficult for him to pronounce it properly. Simon is forcibly volunteered by the others to make the opening address, and freezes. Scott asks his phone’s virtual assistant, “What do you do if a disabled person panics?”
The five activists squabble about almost everything. They debate the use of the word “disabled”. For most of them it’s unexceptionable, but Simon doesn’t like it. He is, he says in a moment that is kind of heart-stopping, “still coming to terms with it”. Sarah objects to the visual text, which she says is patronising. Simon, gesturing towards Mark, who is mostly silent, says he wants to speak for the voiceless. He echoes a common trope used by those who are advantaged: the rich for the poor; the white saviours. Mark comically dismisses Simon’s concern.
Along the way, we are made privy to how hierarchies organise themselves, and also how they are undermined, both within the disability community and, by extension, outside it. There are those who are linguistically articulate, as opposed to those who are less so, while other fractures exist along gendered and racial lines. The only time they all agree is when they turn a baleful gaze upon the audience: “They’re not getting it.”
Underneath everything is the question of complicity. Can we watch Kevin Spacey films now? Scott delivers an oration from an exaggeratedly high Styrofoam pulpit, in which he talks about the indentured labour of 30 intellectually disabled men by a turkey-processing plant in Iowa. He also tells us how the giant board game company Hasbro – maker of Monopoly and Ker-Plunk – exploited the women in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, including disabled women, for cheap labour to assemble their board games. And suddenly childhood nostalgia is rifted with shame.
The screen text “learns” as the show progresses, correcting itself, becoming more attuned to each different way of speaking, until it too becomes a character in the show. It’s a useful thing, says Scott. But it raises a disturbing question: what happens to us neurotypical people when artificial intelligence outstrips us? Will the AI we have built – which, as is increasingly pointed out, encodes the prejudices of its makers – treat us like the turkeys in the processing plant? Will the neurotypical be treated as we have treated disabled people?
“You are all mentally disabled,” we are told. In this world, our almost-future, disabled people are the experts, and it’s time we listened to them. The directness of the message, the unconcealed impatience with which it’s delivered throughout the show, is slyly devastating. And then, carefully, slowly, the actors dismantle the stage they built for us, and leave.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "A welcome Back". Subscribe here.