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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.

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