Emerging from the darkness of backstage, led to the orchestra pit by a dim torchlight, The Necks begin to play. Their unique blend of avant-garde improvised jazz slowly envelops the space. The audience is transfixed by their hypnotic cacophony of sound.
And then the lights brighten on the stage and the performers emerge, slowly, one by one. They take their time; listening to the audience and to each other. A conversation begins and is repeated in surtitles projected onto a black curtain. From the opening in the curtain a stranger appears, creeping slowly toward the other side of the stage from the rest of the performers. After a brief attempt to introduce themselves to her, the other performers decide she is worthless. So begins a cruel, sadistic series of taunts inflicted upon her by the two other female performers.
The curtains draw back to reveal a white scrim, behind which the remainder of the play's action takes place. The Stranger is taunted, jeered at and abused. "You're fat," they scream at her. "You stink. Look at you. Take your clothes off." She obeys. We watch them watch her; through the gauze-like weave of the scrim we see them seeing her, humiliated, voiceless, alone.
It is powerful stuff. Sometimes too powerful. Food Court is a work that seems almost too dark and tragic to compute. Its performers are brave and inventive. They wrestle with themes of anger, tragedy, guilt and control. There are moments of brutal honesty, and they manage at times to convey deep truths about human emotion and sexuality in ways that unsettle and unnerve.
Behind the scrim is a projected forest, all shadows and silhouette and mottled light peeking through leaves. Through the forest the performers navigate their way through the tragedy of their surroundings. The Necks roar on, their drone getting louder and louder, anticipation hanging in the air like lead.
Back to Back Theatre, now appearing at the Melbourne International Arts Festival for the third time, present contemporary performance devised by actors with disabilities. I haven't seen their work before so I did not know what to expect. But I was immensely drawn to what I saw in Food Court: unfamiliar voices, sounds, shapes and colours. I was moved by the ebb and flow of the performers' emotions; transfixed by the ordinariness of their plight. I watched horrified as they inflicted pain onto one another, and felt a stirring deep inside me that harked back to memories of pain I had caused.
Food Court is dark and often harrowing. It is unsettling, awkward, powerful theatre. I cannot make sense of it in any traditional way: it has altered my perceptions of "good" and "bad". It picked me up, carried me along, and dumped me in the depths of a faraway forest. I found it hard to fall asleep that night.
Melbourne International Arts Festival presents
Back to Back Theatre
with The Necks
Venue: the CUB Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre
When: Thu 9 – Sat 11 Oct at 8pm
Sun 12 Oct at 4pm (Performance on Sun 12 followed by a post show Q&A)
Duration: 50min no interval
Prices: Full $45 / Groups (8+) $40.50 / Conc $33.75 / Student / MF-Y $25
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 / www.melbournefestival.com.au / CUB Malthouse (03) 9685 5111