An un­usual en­sem­ble probes iden­tity in a play about a su­per­hero, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Theatre -

SARAH Main­war­ing is an ac­tress with a quiet man­ner and de­lib­er­ate way of speech who makes the lis­tener hang on to her ev­ery word. At Back to Back Theatre’s re­hearsal stu­dio in Gee­long, she and other mem­bers of the com­pany are re­hears­ing their next play, Su­per Dis­count.

Main­war­ing de­liv­ers a speech about the qual­i­ties of val­our — Su­per Dis­count is the un­likely su­per­hero who gives his name to the piece — and de­claims the words with her halt­ing and com­pelling voice. The text, with its high Shake­spearean ca­dences, is adapted from a Mar­vel Comics book: ‘‘ No trum­pets hawk them forth to bat­tle, for true su­per­heroes need no pip­ing of pipes or rolling of drums . . .’’

In the play, Su­per Dis­count is a per­son­al­ity in­vented by a char­ac­ter called Mark, who is played by long-term en­sem­ble mem­ber Mark Deans.

Deans is the com­pany clown, a roly-poly fig­ure and cap­ti­vat­ing to watch. Dur­ing a work­shop of the play’s fi­nal scene, he catches my eye and re­turns a wave and a smile.

If Back to Back’s work has be­come more lay­ered dur­ing the past few years, Su­per Dis­count takes a while to get one’s head around. It’s about role-play and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the con­struc­tion and de­con­struc­tion of char­ac­ter, su­per­heroes with su­per­pow­ers and the very hu­man busi­ness of mak­ing theatre.

Specif­i­cally, di­rec­tor Bruce Glad­win and the Back to Back en­sem­ble are in­ter­ested in the de­pic­tion of peo­ple with in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­ity. Is it cruel that ac­tor David Woods — a ‘‘ nor­mal’’ per­son, as an­other mem­ber of the cast de­scribes him — wants to por­tray Mark with a big belly, wad­dling walk, and chew­ing his thumb with his back teeth?

Dur­ing a re­hearsal break, ac­tor Scott Price ex­plains that Su­per Dis­count is ‘‘ a play within a play within a play’’, in which char­ac­ters au­di­tion to play other char­ac­ters.

Price’s char­ac­ter — also called Scott, who de­scribes him­self as hav­ing autism — is ‘‘ like an avatar of my­self, be­cause it’s kind of like my per­son­al­ity’’, he says.

His role is to stand up for the ‘‘ moral rights’’ of other char­ac­ters. ‘‘ Why use the word re­tarded?’’ he says at one point in the play. And later: ‘‘ It seems to me there are a lot of stereo­types in this room. I think we should be a lit­tle bit care­ful.’’

Back to Back was founded in Gee­long 25 years ago and in the past decade has be­come widely known for its ex­cep­tional work. De­scrib­ing it­self as a com­pany for ‘‘ ac­tors per­ceived to have in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties’’, it em­ploys a full-time salaried en­sem­ble of five ac­tors (a sixth, Nicki Hol­land, re­tired re­cently). Last year, Gee­long city coun­cil built a new black-box re­hearsal stu­dio for Back to Back, and the com­pany tours widely to great ac­claim.

Its last show, Ganesh Ver­sus the Third Re­ich, won the Help­mann Award for best Aus­tralian play; in­ter­na­tion­ally, it was lauded from Vi­enna to Lon­don and New York, where The New York Times’s Ben Brant­ley de­scribed it as a ‘‘ vi­tal, senses-sharp­en­ing tonic for theatre­go­ers who feel they’ve seen it all’’.

The com­pany’s rise to promi­nence is due to the am­bi­tions of the en­sem­ble mem­bers and to Glad­win, Back to Back’s artis­tic di­rec­tor for the past 14 years.

‘‘ When I first came into con­tact with the com­pany in 1989, it was re­ally quite a rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­cept: peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties per­form­ing on the stage,’’ Glad­win says, rid­ing the com­muter train from Gee­long home to sub­ur­ban Melbourne. Very ap­peal­ing, at the same time, was ‘‘ an el­e­ment of wild­ness to [its] work, an al­most punk ethos that was anti­estab­lish­ment and anti-for­mal’’.

Back to Back may talk about per­ceived dis­abil­i­ties but in per­for­mance there is no sweep­ing un­der the car­pet or avoid­ing un­com­fort­able sub­jects.

In the con­fronta­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tions in Su­per Dis­count, Mark is spurred to avenge the mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of him­self, lead­ing to a bat­tle to the death in the per­mafrost. The cli­mac­tic scene is played out on a ta­ble top with a sound­track re­sem­bling some­thing from a video game.

‘‘ The idea of the con­clu­sion is that Mark has a go at per­form­ing him­self . . . and he fails,’’ Glad­win says. ‘‘ Mark is tri­umphant in this [fan­tasy] en­vi­ron­ment, and then the lights change back to a re­hearsal room, and Mark is stuck on the ta­ble and can’t get down.

‘‘ I’m in­ter­ested in this idea of the con­struc­tion of the im­age, of see­ing some­one as the hero and the af­ter­math of that: some­one who can’t get down off a ta­ble with­out some­one else’s as­sis­tance.’’

All of this is worked out dur­ing a long re­hearsal pe­riod, in which the play is de­vised through group im­pro­vi­sa­tions that are video­taped. Glad­win some­times sets up for­mal im­prov ses­sions, or he al­lows the tape to run while the group talks. Later, he goes through the video record and se­lects the parts that can be shaped into a script.

Ganesh marked a new phase in the en­sem­ble’s evo­lu­tion, Glad­win says: with its lay­ers of nar­ra­tive, the ac­tors be­came used to de­lin­eat­ing the dif­fer­ent the­atri­cal modes.

Su­per Dis­count goes fur­ther. While Ganesh was built around a set of pre­de­ter­mined sce­nar­ios, the new play is al­most en­tirely group-de­vised, based on im­pro­vi­sa­tions across a pe­riod of two years.

Only dur­ing the past few months has it taken shape in scripted form. ‘‘ In a way, the ti­tle re­flects the aes­thetic of the piece,’’ Glad­win says. ‘‘ It’s kind of stripped back. It’s dis­counted, in that it’s stripped back to the ac­tors on stage, hold­ing the com­plex­ity to­gether on their own.’’

The new­est mem­bers of the en­sem­ble — Price, Brian Til­ley and Si­mon La­herty — have en­abled this evo­lu­tion to more com­plex, dia­logue-driven plays. Price, in par­tic­u­lar, has a near-pho­to­graphic mem­ory for text.

‘‘ I love work­ing with Scott, be­cause he says ex­actly what he thinks,’’ Glad­win says. ‘‘ He’s not back­wards in telling me if some­thing doesn’t work, or if I’m out of line. He’ll do it with a sense of con­vic­tion that is fu­elled by his Tourette’s, in a way. He’s a re­ally strong self-ad­vo­cate as a per­son with a dis­abil­ity, and he’s not afraid to name some­thing as it is.

‘‘ Mark is this quiet clown, but his re­la­tion­ship to dis­abil­ity is to­tally dif­fer­ent: I’ve never heard the word dis­abled come out of his mouth, and I don’t think he nec­es­sar­ily sees him­self as some­one with a dis­abil­ity.’’

Glad­win de­scribes the qual­i­ties of the other ac­tors in the group. Main­war­ing, who suf­fered head in­juries in a car crash when she was a child, stud­ied drama at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity and per­formed in her own shows at Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre. She is a fear­less per­former who will strip off if re­quired: ‘‘ No stranger to the avant-garde at all,’’ Glad­win says.

Til­ley’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with comic-book su­per­heroes, Glad­win says, is not only about cos­mic punch-ups but about al­tru­ism and mak­ing sac­ri­fices for other peo­ple: an emo­tional quest and per­sonal jour­ney that has in­formed the writ­ing of Su­per Dis­count.

La­herty, the fifth mem­ber of the group, may be the most recog­nis­able: his im­age has ap­peared on posters for Ganesh Ver­sus the Third Re­ich (he was the fuhrer) and Small Me­tal Ob­jects. ‘‘ Si­mon just has this in­cred­i­ble ca­pac­ity for truth on stage, and I find him highly watch­able,’’ Glad­win says. ‘‘ He could just stand on stage and I am just drawn to him. It’s this quiet achieve­ment that hap­pens.’’

In his lunch breaks, La­herty has been writ­ing an ac­count of Back to Back. ‘‘ I could work with an­other theatre com­pany if I wanted to,’’ La­herty says, ‘‘ but I wouldn’t want to, be­cause I want to stay here and do what I do here.’’

Til­ley says he en­joys go­ing on tour with the com­pany and is look­ing for­ward to tak­ing Ganesh Ver­sus the Third Re­ich to Fes­ti­val Tokyo in De­cem­ber, im­me­di­ately af­ter the Melbourne run of Su­per Dis­count. ‘‘ I’m a bit off the topic with Su­per Dis­count,’’ he says of his dis­like of that par­tic­u­lar ti­tle, ‘‘ but I’m just so ex­cited with Tokyo.’’

Price says he is for­tu­nate to be work­ing with a great group of peo­ple, and with a com­pany where his imag­i­na­tion comes alive. What made him be­come an ac­tor?

‘‘ Just a pas­sion for the arts,’’ he says. ‘‘ And au­di­tions, au­di­tions, au­di­tions. It’s just that process of go­ing through au­di­tions.’’

Su­per Dis­count is at Wharf 1, Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany, Septem­ber 20 to Oc­to­ber 19, and at Malt­house Theatre, Melbourne, Novem­ber 13 to De­cem­ber 1.

Brian Til­ley, Mark Deans and David Woods re­hearse Su­per Dis­count, top; Back to Back artis­tic di­rec­tor Bruce Glad­win with the play’s cast, above

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