Playwright Tom Holloway undertook the delicate business of asking people from this place to share their stories about the events of that day. Some obliged him, and the resulting interviews have informed the writing of a play that displays skill, creative bravery and a laudable willingness to venture into risky territory.
Beyond the Neck is set ten years on from that terrible day, it tells the stories of four characters, all of whom are touched by the place and the events in very different ways. None of them have names. Their stories skilfully interwoven, they speak directly to the audience, to imagined characters onstage, they support, interrupt, talk over and stop each other from speaking. There is the old man Port Arthur Tour Guide, (Ron Haddrick), for whom the events of that day still echo in half imagined gunshots; the Woman, (Sara Cooper) a mother stuck on a blue rinse tour bus whose family were killed in a car accident; a Young Boy (Jon auf der Heide) whose workaholic parents neglect him; and there is the Teenage Girl, (Jemma Gates) whose father was a victim of the gunman.
Holloway has done much more than written what is pretty close to a terrific thought provoking piece of theatre. He seems to have successfully negotiated the dangers of voyeurism; he handles the burden of authenticity, the need for sensitivity and does avoid sensationalising. This play is as much about a set of relationships to the people of Port Arthur and their healing process, and awareness of this fact is emphasised in Jamie Clennett’s beautiful designed collection of artefacts, most of which were offered by the audience. Each artefact is symbolic of a story that belongs to the audience and perhaps the interview subjects as much as the creative team.
The play aims to explore trauma, the isolation that grief can bring as well as the need for a sense of community to help in times of trouble. It manages to present something of the psychopathology of both victim and perpetrator; through the stories of the Teenage Girl, who is struggling to come to terms with the murder of her father and the experience of watching her mother replace him with his best friend; through the Tour Guide who was a witness, and through the Young Boy, whose intense loneliness leads him into a possibly imaginary friendship with Michael, who encourages him into brutal destructiveness.
However, I’m not convinced that the play is successful on all fronts. There is an expository section in the first half, where the tension chiefly resides in waiting for what might be all hell breaking loose. It takes too long to do so. Also, the style and some structural elements of this play get in the way of the audiences understanding of the stories presented. The direct address style of storytelling embodies a sense of community in its very form, as the four storytellers emphasise the supportive and sometimes contradictory process of group retelling. This does lead to confusion, however, as past, present and imaginary characters all sometimes merge, leaving us at a loss as to how to connect to the emotional journeys of the four. I’m sure that this blending of past and present is being deliberately explored as an effect of the grieving process, but it isn’t always helpful. I don’t get a strong sense of community or a deeper exploration of grieving from the content either, and I think this work is at its most potent exploring the stories of the Tour Guide and the Teenage Girl, both of whom were more directly affected by the massacre. I’m not sure that the Young Boy’s story takes us deeply enough into his world to understand the psychotic nature of mass murderer, and the Woman’s story really did confuse me.
Director Iain Sinclair has assembled a cast with different levels of experience, and he has shepherded them successfully through what is a challenging form for an actor. There are some big emotional moments, particularly for the Sara Cooper’s Woman and Ron Haddrick’s Tour Guide, mostly addressing people who don’t literally exist on stage, and these moments really do work. The form relies on snappy pacing and sense of timing, and this is close to flawless. Jemma Gates presents us with a beautiful portrayal of someone whose sense of misunderstood betrayal leads her to rebellion and Jon auf der Heide’s Young Boy manages to both irritate and provoke sympathy.
Whatever its flaws, this remains an accomplished piece of theatre that will get you talking, feeling and thinking about some difficult issues.
Argy Bargy Productions presents
Beyond the Neck
Venue: Earl Arts Centre
Date: 18 - 21 September @ 8.00pm
Tickets: Adults: $28, Concession: $18
Bookings: Princess Theatre Box Office 63233666 or at www.theatrenorth.com.au