Back to Back Theatre, Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, October 1
WHEN the members of Back to Back argue about who has the right to play certain characters, they enter one of the continuing and often fraught discussions in theatre. Blackface has long been consigned to the dustbin of history but are there enough roles for actors of colour? Is it right that a straight actor should play a gay character? What about the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar, currently playing in New York: is that perfectly reasonable given that in Shakespeare’s time casts were exclusively male, so it’s sort of the same thing, turned around?
In Back to Back’s Super Discount, presented by Sydney Theatre Company, questions of this kind are posed in three fascinating, challenging dimensions.
But first to the premise. The company is still at rehearsal stage but actor Mark Deans is already all dressed up and ready to go as the superhero at the centre of a new show. Deans has his cape on and wears the look of someone who knows this is the way it should be. Others, however, are putting forward their claims to the role with much vehemence. The problem is, not all of them would seem entirely suitable, at least by the usual thespian standards.
I assume anyone who has got this far knows that Back to Back is a theatre company, based in Geelong, Victoria, in which most of the actors have an intellectual disability. It would be a grave mistake to categorise all the performers as if they were one type, however. Like everyone, each is an individual with different abilities and shortcomings. In Super Discount there’s heated argy-bargy about who is up to performing such a lead role and who has the right to do it, discussion in which Deans plays very little part. He has Down syndrome and says hardly anything during the course of the 70-minute piece. Which raises a second strand of thought. Who will advocate for Deans? Will anyone advocate for him? Does he need someone to advocate for him? Is special pleading required? What is justice?
A third layer is provided by David Woods, a conventionally abled actor who throws his weight around and shows in excruciating detail how he would act the role if he were Deans. Talk about throwing a bomb in the room. Seeing Woods wear the mask of disability is deeply distasteful from any perspective but it serves its purpose. The shallowness of his characterisation proves he is the least suitable potential superhero. He gets the part of the antihero instead.
Weaving in and out of the action are Brian Tilley, who does a nifty dance-off with Woods; Sarah Mainwaring, whose unsteady gait and shaky voice take on a singular poetry; Scott Price with his energetic and often very funny eruptions; and Simon Laherty, the grave, still centre of the piece. I keep seeing his long, beautiful, Modigliani face, hearing his deliberate voice and remembering the clarity and poise of his interaction with Deans.
No prizes for guessing who ends up playing the superhero in a final scene of pure, sweet joy.
The play is bookended with two lovely scenic elements. Super Discount opens with an entirely unexpected and utterly ravishing mini tornado rising and falling in the centre of the stage and ends with a rain of gold. (Director Bruce Gladwin also designed.) Disruption and transcendence jostle for position. Otherwise Super Discount is absolutely unsparing in demanding the audience’s attention. STC’s Wharf 1 is completely bare except for a few chairs and a table.
Back to Back is also merciless, and rightly so, in making its audience sift and weigh prejudices. It tests thinking about what acting is, and what theatre is, and what skills are required to do and to make theatre.
Interestingly, it also tests the skills one needs as an audience member. Passive listening – let’s call it sitting back and hearing – won’t do at Super Discount (great title). An intense act of listening is required, given the different types of vocal production from these actors. And before anyone thinks I’m being politically correct here, the same level of active engagement – exactly! – was required at STC’s The Maids if one was to get the full measure of Isabelle Huppert’s gloriously wacky, heavily accented performance.
Back to Back’s knotty, subversive theatre isn’t easy, but it is unforgettable. There’s just one more week in Sydney then on to Melbourne. There is talk of Back to Back’s hugely successful Ganesh versus the Third Reich (which premiered in 2011) coming to Sydney next year, to which I can only say, not before time. Meanwhile, after Super Discount in Melbourne Back to Back takes Ganesh to Tokyo (December 6-8) on the back of an extensive international schedule this year that has taken in the US, France, Germany and Canada. Is there another Australian theatre company that has toured so widely to such acclaim? Happy to hear from any candidates, but I think not.
Super Discount ends in Sydney on October 19 and runs at Melbourne’s Malthouse from November 13.