Since the dawn of storytelling we have used animals to illustrate and interrogate our relationship to the natural world. Animals feature in fables used to amuse and educate children; they roam through narratives dealing with the cruelty of men and the suffering of the innocent (Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, War Horse in its literary, stage and screen versions); they’re unleashed in tales about the beast within (Peter Shaffer’s Equus, Edward Albee’s The Goat); and they’re routinely recruited by Hollywood to represent the best versions of ourselves (Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Ratatouille).
This compulsion to use the animal kingdom to dramatise and dissect human dilemmas is powerful. In recent months the Perth theatre scene has mutated into a veritable Zootopia, with three productions featuring domesticated creatures. First we had The Kabuki Drop’s Nocturna, a Surrealist comedy about the relationship between share-house dwellers and their chatty cat; then came Black Swan’s Animal Farm, in which Van Badham updates George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist classic for the age of fake news; and now we get The Last Great Hunt’s Bite the Hand, a comedy–drama about an experimental program that imbues domesticated dogs with consciousness and speech.
One of Bite the Hand’s dogs, Rex (Jeffrey Jay Fowler), is owned by a scientist involved in the program, Wes (Michael Abercromby). Wes waves around a brick-sized manual on how to treat the suddenly smart pets because, as he warns all his clients, without strict discipline they will go “mad” and attempt to chew off their faces. The other dog bounding up the evolutionary ladder belongs to Wes’s sister Sam (Alicia Osyka) and her partner, Dale (Amy Mathews), who is suffering from mental health issues. Sam figures that an enhanced version of their dog, Alice (Arielle Gray), will drag Dale off the couch and save their teetering relationship.
While Rex remains basically a dog – he talks but spends most of his time chasing balls, wagging his tail and sniffing his bum – Alice grows smarter by the day. She’s soon reading, using big words and solving complicated puzzles. Indeed, Alice gets so clever so fast that when Wes comes around to check on her progress she has the self-consciousness to mock his rule-following and play dumb.
The vivacious, deeply devoted Alice lifts Dale out of her funk and the pair form an inseparable bond, a relationship of equals that’s in stark contrast with the horrid Pozzo and Lucky-like pairing of Wes and Rex. But when Wes pressures the women to impose strict discipline on Alice she flees into the night and starts hanging out with a pack of runaways, coming under the sway of their Spartacus-like leader, Reginald (also played by Fowler).
Like an episode of Black Mirror, the futuristic British television series whose premises open the way for scintillating examinations of philosophical dilemmas, Bite the Hand boasts a full house of hot-button issues: the ethics of cutting-edge science; the subjugation and mistreatment of animals and, by extension, anyone perceived to be different; the physical and mental damage wrought by authoritarian regimes; our questionable desire to use animals to deal with our own emotional and psychological struggles; and the twisted nature of master/slave relationships.
While Bite the Hand is funny and challenging – the writer, The Last Great Hunt ensemble member Chris Isaacs, whips up snappy dialogue and knows how to construct a compelling scene – the play suffers from being too much like the maddeningly energetic Rex. It jumps all over the place – wagging its tail, demanding our attention, then scampering on to the next thing. It never sits in one spot long enough for the audience to reflect upon any of its insights about humankind’s relationship to animals. And rather than reaching for grand political metaphors, such as the admittedly interesting scene in which Rex forces Alice to confront that she’s choosing her own enslavement, Bite the Hand would have greater resonance if it focused on the story strand dealing with the use of pets to alleviate mental illness. This is why the climax is confusing and somewhat trite.
Bite the Hand is at its most entertaining and interesting in the performances of Gray and Fowler as Alice and Rex. They use no masks to impersonate the dogs – the dreaded leash is about the only prop – but capture the essence of a beloved but annoyingly exuberant family pet. In contrast, the performers in Animal Farm don pig snouts, a hard-to-understand pantomime that fails to be engaging or affecting. Under the astute direction of Matt Edgerton – not a company member but one of the talents drawn into The Last Great Hunt’s orbit – Gray and Fowler channel their inner pooch so effectively that even when they rein in their dogginess for the quieter scenes they still manage to communicate their characters’ divided essence – not quite animal, not quite human.
That Bite the Hand amuses and confuses at the same time is no surprise to those who have followed the trajectory of The Last Great Hunt, which in less than a decade has come to be regarded as Western Australia’s second theatre company, after Black Swan. Even though The Last Great Hunt is now lavishly funded – they were the recipients of a $1.5 million grant through the Morrison government’s Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund – the company has remained true to its fringe and indie roots and remained artist-led, with the seven-person ensemble involved in all decision-making. While the drive to innovate has delivered many critically acclaimed box office hits, such as their 2019 Perth Arts Festival multimedia sensation Lé Nør, the work often begins dazzlingly but fails to deliver on its promise. This is the case with Bite the Hand.
Scene after terrific scene opens doors that are too quickly slammed shut, ideas are floated and left to drift off, lines of action begin and conclude perfunctorily. On the other hand, audiences do discuss the work afterwards, which over the past few years hasn’t been the case with our state theatre company.
The Last Great Hunt ensemble has shaken up the Western Australian theatre scene – how often do you go to a play and see more people aged under 40 than over? With financial security, a cohort of multiskilled creators and a large, eager audience, there is every chance this energetic company will evolve their storytelling skills, so what they have to say comes into line with their undoubted capacity to delight.
The final performance of Bite the Hand is on tonight (October 23) at the Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 23, 2021 as "In the dog house".
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