Skip to main content

By Their Own Hands - MTC's Neon Festival of Independent Theatre


This year, the most brave and challenging theatre I’ve been witness to has been on the stages of the Melbourne Theatre Company – as part of the Neon Festival of Independent Theatre. Five of Melbourne’s best known independent theatre companies have been invited into the Lawler Theatre and given carte blanche to create new works. The results, so far, have been incredible.

Last night, I was witness to the Hayloft Project’s By Their Own Hands, co-written, co-directed and co-starring Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie. Ever since I saw Hayloft’s production of Thyestes, I have always felt less an audience member and more of a witness to their work – later reporting on their brutal (Thyestes), thought-provoking (The Nest), darkly humorous (Delectable Shelter) and enigmatic (The Seizure) creations.

By Their Own Hands continues the evolution of a company that has made their mark on Melbourne theatre and will survive because each of their shows both compliments what has come before and extends the reach of their vision. Notably, I think, Hayloft always chooses the perfect spaces for their works. Thyestes developed for the Tower. The Nest, a perfect fit for the Northcote Town Hall. Delectable Shelter, a light in the dark of the cavernous Theatreworks.

Given the invitation to MTC’s Lawler Theatre, Sarks and Hardie have again used the space in an interesting way – by leaving all the lights on and inviting the audience to join them on the stage for Act One. In a Q&A after the show, Hardie explained that one of the thoughts behind the show was to create something that audiences wouldn’t expect to see on an MTC stage.

And this is true of the Neon Festival in general. What audiences have been privileged to see over the past few weeks and three shows is brave, exciting and fresh new work from three companies whose command of theatrical language is second-to-none. I have heard criticisms of the shows – and none have been particularly well embraced by critics at The Age or the Herald-Sun. But what excites me about all of these shows – and the Festival overall – is that these creatives have been allowed to try something new.

Sure, all of them seem to be adaptations of some kind – though Menagerie is clearly inspired by Tennessee William’s life, not-so-much The Glass Menagerie; On the Bodily Education of Girls is only inspired by a novella – Adena Jacobs and Fraught Outfit developed something that seemed as much in conversation with the original story or in reaction to it, rather than trying to theatricalise it.

Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks, By Their Own Hands
By Their Own Hands is a retelling of the Oedipus myth. One of the absolute highlights of Melbourne theatre last year was the Malthouse production, On the Misconception of Oedipus. But there is a reason why theatre returns the myth and the play by Sophocles; it’s internal and primal and can be told in lengthy, languid ways or it short, sharp bursts of energy.

Act One, as I mentioned, has the audience invited onto the stage. Benedict and Anne-Louise tell the story of Oedipus – casting different audience members as the key characters in the tragedy. They improvise a little, reacting to the audience reactions – describing the characters as looking a little like the audience members they pick for each role. We gather around. We can wander. We can take in this tale from different perspectives. But in the end, we are drawn in because we are there. Even if we are not in the main cast, we are the tableau of townspeople – even if at some point we die.

Act Two is a purely visual feast that is both inviting, delicate and brutal. We already know the story because Act One has outlined it so well. Recreating the visceral moments of the text; Oedipus’ birth, his copulating with Jocasta and her hanging, is a punch to the gut. Even though the entire show is particularly Brechtian; we watch the actors change costume, set up props and set. We can see the wires very deliberately, but Jocasta’s death is still very, very shocking.

Act Three is improvised. The action is modern day. These characters are us. We recognise their conversations. But where in the story are we. Who are we watching flirt with each other? Is it Jocasta and Oedipus’ father? No, it’s Jocasta and Oedipus himself. And the tragedy is in the mundane. And the ending is flawless and affecting.

All three shows have engendered much discussion post-show and, in the case of the first two, the weeks after. None of them were easy for me to digest, which is what has made them so exciting. I’m still thinking about Daniel Schlusser’s ode to one of the great writers of the twentieth century. I’m still stuck watching those young girls dancing in my mind, as part of Adena Jacobs’ ode to the education of young girls.

And, as I expect from Benedict Hardie, Anne-Louise Sarks and Hayloft, I will be thinking about By Their Own Hands for a long time to come. Enthralling.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You are far away: Agent Cooper and his troubling return to Twin Peaks

“What year is this?” Dale Cooper asks in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return , the last of many unanswered questions left as the 18-part feature film concluded a week ago. It’s far from the first time we’ve seen someone who looks like Dale Cooper lost for answers over recent months. But it might be the first time we have definitive proof that he’s in over his head. Mr C, Dale Cooper’s doppelganger, who was first seen in the original series’ finale back in 1991, returned to the town of Twin Peaks with a goal in mind. Mr C was flexible, though. He had to be; he’d set so many things in motion over twenty-five years, if he’d remained fixated, he would never have come as far as he did. Dougie, Dale Cooper’s tulpa – created by and from Mr C, wandered aimlessly through life, but slowly made every life he touched better. Plans change and Dougie changed with them. Slowly but surely, Dougie pieced together Cooper’s past life and became richer for it. Agent Cooper, th

Careful the things you say... Joe Wright’s HANNA & the combination of genres

Once upon a time... I tried to write a film script that melded noir and Grimm’s fairytales, where the femme fatale , clad in a slinky red dress, was also (in a way) Little Red Riding Hood. Where the lover of a hit man discovered his true identity from something hidden under his mattress. Evil (step)mothers, adopted children, hunters, princesses and family fortunes. Noir and fairytales have a lot in common and yet... I had real trouble finding the right tone for the piece. And, in the end, my script read too much like I was trying to get the concept to work, rather than telling a compelling story. Saoirse Ronan as Hanna Joe Wright’s film HANNA , screenplay by Seth Lockhead and David Farr, finds the perfect balance between a high tension thriller and a fairytale coming-of-age story. And travels further into the story of this mysterious girl than the trailer suggests. Going in, I was worried this might be too close to Leon or La Femme Nikita – the original films of which I t

REVIEW: The Gospel According to Paul by Jonathan Biggins

Early on in Jonathan Biggins’ one-man ode to Australia’s best-dressed, collector-of-antique-clocks Prime Minister, the character of Paul Keating says that there has never been a great Australian PM. None on the scale of Churchill or Washington or Jefferson. And I wondered if the premise of the show was to submit Keating for consideration. Paul John Keating was the 24 th Prime Minister of Australia, elected to office in 1993, after ousting his predecessor, Bob Hawke, in 1991. He was a career politician from the age of 25, after managing a rock band called The Ramrods in the late 1960s. He was only Prime Minister for one full term and a bit, nothing like Hawke (in The Lodge for nearly 9 years) nor his successor, John Howard, who held the country hostage for nearly 11 . Keating was a member of the Labor Right; socially progressive but fiscally conservative. He’s famous for saying “the recession we had to have” during the economic slowdown of 1990, responding to the High Court’s Nativ

Carrie Fisher: No More Postcards

Two Princess Leias, a medal and some broken jewellry Did I ever tell you about the time Carrie Fisher kissed me on the cheek? Stick around, I’ll tell it again soon. Carrie Fisher was Princess Leia; no getting past that. Except, of course, she did. And then she stepped right back into being her last year. She was the right person to play Leia because she was the right age at the time and she is part of Hollywood royalty. She was also the right person to have been Leia in retrospect, too. Can you imagine anyone else describing Jabba the Hutt as a “giant saliva testicle”? Anyone else who would bring an audience member up on stage to mount a Leia “sex doll” and whip it away before they get close enough to fulfil their childhood fantasy? Actors, even those of Star Wars­­­ -level fame, go in and out of the spotlight. Oh, you could spot Fisher on screen in the 1980s and 90s, but much of her hard work went on behind the scenes, as a script writer and script doctor. Hook , Sist

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: THE AVENGERS assemble on the big screen

I like superheroes. I grew up with reruns of the 1960s Batman TV series. The Superman films were released when I was really young. The Amazing Spider-Man , Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were nighttime TV shows. And one of the defining motion picture releases of my teenage years was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. I was never a big comic book reader as a kid – I’ve probably read more comic books, uh, graphic novels in the last ten years than any time before that. But superheroes were always very cool. And Burton’s Batman took my favourite superhero very seriously. Well, until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins appeared – taking it ultra-seriously and much darker than I’d ever hoped for. As a non-comic reader, I find it hard to align myself as a DC ( Batman , Superman , Wonder Woman ) or Marvel Universe ( Spider-Man , X-Men , The Avengers and its consitutent parts) person. They appeal to different parts of my brain. In effect, DC’s superheroes are often lone warrior

Walking out... I couldn't do it, could you?

Every so often, I think about walking out of a play, but I can't. I've never done it and I don't think I ever could. I've never walked out of a film, either. It's not in my nature. In the end, I'd rather suffer through the entire thing so I can criticise the entire play, rather than leave halfway and never know if it got any better or any worse. This has come to mind now, not because I wanted to walk out of Terence Malick's big budget experimental film The Tree of Life , but because apparently walk outs are becoming a phenomenon with that particular movie. And in a packed theatre at Cinema Nova last night, the walk outs were notable by their absense when the lights came up at the end. It certainly won't be to everyone's taste. It's very much an impressionistic film that explores grand ideas through mood and beauty, rather than telling a coherent narrative. But, even those moments in the film that were the most challenging on a "need for

Colder by Lachlan Philpott - Red Stitch

Colder Photo: Teresa Noble I’m there. I’m sitting there in the dark. Sitting there in the dark watching a play by Lachlan Philpott at Red Stitch. A child has gone missing at Disneyland but nothing evokes Disneyland for me, not even the actors wearing mouse ears. Especially not the actors wearing mouse ears and affecting exaggerated American accents. I want to feel what the mother is feeling, while officious behind-the-scenes Disney workers assure her everything is going to be fine. I want a sense of her being frantic and frustrated. But I don’t get this sense because the language of the play is putting me at a distance. The expository monologues don’t paint a picture or flesh out a world beyond the very basic (“padded concrete, padded seats”) and the facile (“padded people”). This choral arrangement of voices is not singing. Eight-year-old David remains missing all day and we learn that his single mother has felt separate from him ever since. We ar

REVIEW: let bleeding girls lie by Olivia Satchell

  Three. Three women. Three women sit silently, set an equal distance apart, each with a cannula inserted into their hands. Three women sit silently, set an equal distance apart, each with a cannula inserted into their hands, donating plasma at a blood bank in Melbourne. They are there when the audience walks into the theatre. They sit, reading a book or their phone, fidgeting as we find our seats and chatter amongst ourselves before the lights go down. The play has already started, of course. The thing about giving plasma is that the wait is part of the experience. You cannot go anywhere. You’re hooked in. They sit in a room surrounded by televisions, all tuned to the same network. Like donating blood at Harvey Norman. But they’ve come prepared to wait. Lou is writing in her journal. Grace is reading Go Set a Watchmen for her book club. Juice is scrolling endlessly on her phone. Small talk starts. It’s pleasant and awkward in equal measure. You never know if other peopl

REVIEW: Cactus by Madelaine Nunn

It’s 120 days (not counting weekends) until Abbie leaves high school, but she’s got a lot to tackle and endure in those final months. Luckily, she has her best friend, PB, by her side. Abbie’s period surprises her one day at school and she has to improvise, because she doesn’t have any tampons with her. PB hands her a roll of toilet paper under the stall and it feels like the pair of them are always there for each other in similar ways. PB seems to be more outgoing, forward thinking, forward trying, but that might be because Abbie is held back by the torture of endometriosis. High school and puberty are hard enough without feeling like there’s a cactus scraping at your insides. So, on top of the usual school dramas like exams and boys and emotions and sex and clothes and the school formal and self-defence classes, Abbie is facing the likelihood she’ll never have children. Something she has always dreamed and assumed would happen for her. Madeleine Nunn’s script is insightful, and

“Fate Will Twist The Both of You”: Twenty Year School Reunion and the party next door...

Twelve months ago, I premiered a short play of mine at The Owl & the Pussycat in Richmond. Titled You Will Be Kissed By Princess Leia , the play was about how you can’t always live up to the dreams you had when you were fifteen years old. It’s definitely the most autobiographical of all my plays, dealing with one character at age 15 and at age 35, interrogating himself about where he’s been and where he’s going. It’s about finding your feet as a kid and finding your comfort zone as an adult. Paul Knox and Tom Carmody, You Will Be Kissed By Princess Leia September, 2011 There was some fun to be had in the fifteen-year-old not understanding references his thirty-five-year old self makes. And some drama in the conflict between how the character had been as a teenager and how he’d wished he’d been. And the show was done in the round in the Owl & the Pussycat’s then-gallery space, as if the crowd was surrounding two kids fighting in the schoolyard. After the show, if