Back to Back Theatre’s The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is thick with what is left unsaid, says Jane Howard
We are failing as an audience.
“I don’t think they’re getting it,” says Michael Chan.
“Be simple. Use small words,” instructs Scott Price.
We are in a hall in Geelong. A meeting has been convened. We, the audience at this meeting, aren’t getting it.
But what is the “it” we’re not getting?
The last time Back to Back Theatre were at Melbourne Festival it was in the stunningly ambitious Lady Eats Apple. Staged in Hamer Hall, a seating bank was constructed on the stage. We began seated in a womb-like tent, as God created the earth. Then the white curtain dropped and we were faced with the view of the 2500 red velvet seats of the theatre, actors moving between the seating levels in a series of scenes about life and love.
The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, directed by Bruce Gladwin, is a quieter affair. Five actors, five seats, an empty stage. They present straight to us; they have private asides. This is a public meeting; they’ve gathered here to tell us something.
As they set up before the meeting, they discuss what touching is appropriate. When can others touch you; when can you touch yourself. It isn’t mentioned, yet, but sitting heavily over these light hearted conversations is the knowledge of the increased rates of abuse – sexual and otherwise – people with a disability have been subjected to over thousands of years. It isn’t mentioned at all, but the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability started in Australia only last month.
Before the meeting can start, the debates: are we watching five people with a disability? Five “disabled people”? Simon Laherty objects. He doesn’t want to be labelled as having a disability at all. Mark Deans says nothing. Just a smile and a thumbs up. Michael is practical though. Sarah Mainwaring has a brain injury; Scott has autism; the remaining three have intellectual disabilities. Words, here, are important.
Scott gives a lecture. This is the history of abuse of people with a disability. It is a recent history: men enslaved in the 1960s on a farm in Iowa, freed in 2009; the closure of the Magdalene laundries only in 1996; the use of women in these laundries to assemble Hasbro games.
It devolves: here is a conversation about the games these actors have played. Play-Doh; Monkeys in a Barrel. It is unspoken but thick in the air: what does it mean to play these games, knowing how the people who made them were treated?
Often things in The Shadow are unsaid but sit heavily; but there are times when things aren’t said this whisper of a complexity seems to float away unacknowledged. Sarah is angry that they are being live-captioned, it stigmatises their voices and the way they speak to say they need to be captioned. “I don’t want to be spat on and polished,” she says.
But those who are d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing aren’t mentioned. Neither are those who speak English-as-another-language or those with auditory processing disorders. Captioning like this can be seen as a disability access tool, and like all access tools it can bring benefits to many more than those for whom it’s primarily designed.
The captioning, we’re told, is done by a computer. We can’t get angry at technology, we’re told. But while Scott says people have a hard time understanding his voice, modulated by autism and a “thick Australian accent”, the captioning is near flawless – any errors are quickly corrected. There is no discussion as to how vocal recognition software often fails people with disabilities that impact their speech.
When they are discussing roles in the meeting, Michael decides he is the mayor; Sarah is the secretary. Scott suggests she is perhaps more like a receptionist. She objects, here. But no word on the fact that this is a cast of four men, and only one woman. The women who were sent to the Magdalene laundries because they were sex workers, or pregnant out of wedlock, aren’t mentioned, either. The women with a disability that were sent to these institutions were sent because of the intersection of their disability and their gender – it feels strange to talk about one without the other.
But back to the audience, and why we are failing. We’re not getting it. We are, the cast assumes, neurotypical. We have come to the theatre tonight to watch a cast of actors with intellectual disabilities. That is the status quo of today, The Shadow suggests. But it might not be the status quo of tomorrow.
It is easy to look at the world and see the ways technology has shifted our brains. As I type this, I often misspell a word. Never mind, the squiggly red line will tell me: I’ll correct it without even processing my mistake or processing how to spell it right next time. How many phone-numbers did we used to keep in our heads? How many do we now?
I still can recite for you the number of my Mum’s work from when I was a child; I have never needed to memorise her work phone-number now. I try to remember things before I immediately reach for my phone to look up a fact; I try to read physical books so I am not distracted by the endless possibilities of things to read online, constantly grabbing my attention off in another direction.
And so, The Shadow asks, what next? What happens when the computers outpace us even more, when we are all disabled in comparison to the machines? Will the machines treat us as, for millennia, we have treated those with a disability? If the mistreatment of people with a disability is a way of stating our status – we are better than you – what happens when the computers are better than us?
Where Lady Eats Apple was ambitious in its staging, The Shadow is ambitious in the scale of its ideas. It is a complex show, thick with questions. Unsaid knowledge often sits heavy over the proceedings, acknowledged but unspoken.
But there are stickier, messier questions which don’t feel acknowledged in their unspeaking. We are failing as an audience, we’re told. But in the end Back to Back allow us to leave slightly too satisfied that we were able to stop failing. Too much is still unsaid. Too much is left to be discussed. What does it mean when these conversations end with a curtain call, and the audience is freed to walk outside, satisfied we they got it? We stopped failing. We’ll know what to do, when the machines come.
The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, by Mark Deans, Michael Chan, Bruce Gladwin, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price and Sonia Teuben, directed by Bruce Gladwin. Composition by Luke Howard Trio – Daniel Farrugia, Luke Howard and Jonathon Zion. Screen design by Rhian Hinkley, lowercase, lighting design by Andrew Livingston, bluebottle, sound design by Lachlan Carrick, costume design by Shio Otani, script consultant Melissa Reeves. Performed by Mark Deans, Michael Chan, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price. Back to Back Theatre, Fairfax Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 20. Bookings
Warnings: Contains coarse language, neuro-typical shaming, references to sexual and physical abuse, prescription medication and the oppression of animal and humans.
The Fairfax Studio is wheelchair accessible. To purchase wheelchair and companion tickets, contact the venue.
Assistive hearing and sound amplification systems available
Partly surtitled or includes dialogue, some background music and/or sounds.