Back to Back Theatre’s latest show spans from the beginning of the world to the limits of humanity – and everything in between
Back to Back Theatre are (to quote the title of their book) “people who do shows”. And while this statement seems self-evident, it also masks a deeper truth about this ensemble: that their no-nonsense approach to theatre often finds them touching up against the limits of experience.
One of the ways they achieve this is by embracing and undercutting the most sophisticated theatrical wizardry available. Any special effects they employ, like the wind vortex in their 2013 Malthouse/STC co-production Super Discount, are subtly mocked by the matter-of-fact playing style of the actors. Their new show for Melbourne Festival, Lady Eats Apple, is by far their most ambitious in terms of its production values, but it doesn’t stray too far from the thematic and tonal register they’ve developed over more than 20 years.
The audience reach the playing space through what is basically a large white inflatable vulva. Inside is the world’s womb, black and featureless. Scott Price and Brian Lipson open the show by holding up chalk boards cautioning us to prepare for violence and death, but this seems more a general warning than an indication of what’s to come; any violence is purely existential and death is ultimately withheld.
They are soon joined by Mark Deans and Sarah Mainwaring as Adam and Eve. Scott takes on the role of God, creating animals with a flick of his wrist, and lecturing and making pronouncements with the use of some hilarious voice-altering equipment. On one level, it’s quite fun and playful. But anyone who’s seen Back to Back before will know to pay very close attention. Issues of power and responsibility, of sex and sexuality, emerge almost subliminally. And then the apple gets eaten, God pulls the plug, and the old world collapses.
Spectacularly, disconcertingly, the stage collapses too, only to reveal another, more liminal stage behind it. It is white and billowing, and feels as much like the inside of Job’s whale as it does the formation of the known world. It breathes and moves, and we are inside its awesome power. What follows is a descent into the hatching of humanity, and its effectiveness depends on the audience’s willingness to endure the purely experiential. Long, wordless scenes of the genesis of matter aren’t to everyone’s taste but, much like the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they have a strange and hypnotic power.
The final section involves another reveal, another collapsing of our ocular space, this time into the real world – the quotidian, petty and messy world we know so well. It is here that those themes of power and responsibility, sex and sexuality come back into play. It is here also that the real humanity of the piece begins to assert itself, possibly too late but welcome nonetheless. The performers argue about promotions and car licences, a romance blossoms, and an unconscious man is attended to with varying degrees of care. Its relationship to the earlier sections is abstruse but crackling with interpretative possibility, and the final image is almost unbearably moving and intimate.
Much of the effect of Lady Eats Apple is due to Marco Cher-Gibard’s sound design. The audience wear headphones throughout and, with the use of an ingenious binaural technique, it feels as if the performers are whispering directly into your ear when they are actually hundreds of metres off into the distance. Chris Abrahams’ compositions are also extraordinary, primordial and burrowing. The show is as much an aural as a visual experience.
Back to Back like to challenge their audiences, and this one seems like their toughest yet – mainly because the three parts are only tenuously linked, and connections left decisively in the audience’s court. They have never let the fact that their performers have a range of physical and intellectual disabilities define, or indeed, confine them from pushing and transforming our expectations of what theatre can be. Long may they continue to do shows.
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