Photo – Jeff Busby
Back to Back Theatre is an interesting theatre group. Utilising a talent base of actors with disabilities, and under the expert leadership of Bruce Gladwin, they aim to create contemporary performances based on the experiences and imaginings of participants and, in the process, devise works that hold more universal truths. This year, PIAF hosts the world premiere of Lady Eats Apple, a rare Back to Back tragedy, which looks at those most universal themes of god and death. It sounds like heavy lifting – a cast of disabled actors performing the world’s heaviest content matter – but Lady Eats Apple is anything but.
The first surprise in store is the theatre setup. Upon entry, you don’t see the beautiful timber panelling of our State Theatre Centre, due to the inflatable set (designed by Mark Cuthbertson) requiring you to step into another world. It is a disorienting experience, as you attempt to guess the configuration of the theatre and where exactly you are positioned (don’t worry about this too much – all will be revealed). Next, each audience member is required to place on headphones – sound system designer Nick Carroll’s intelligent solution to managing the cast’s limited projection capability, which both creates intimacy and provides the opportunity for some stunning aural landscapes.
The performance is divided into three parts. The first, A New God, is a witty, entertaining piece drawing heavily on absurd theatre traditions, which reimagines the creation story as a battle of wits between a new god (Scott Price) and an old god (Brian Lipson). The staging devices used are simple but effective – for example, the cyclical rotation of characters as old god teaches new god, new god teaches Adam (Mark Deans), and Adam teaches Eve (Sarah Mainwaring). There is a spectacularly high laugh rate in the first act, carried by a taut script and wonderful banter between Price and Lipson, but there are also existential moments drenched in fear and vulnerability.
As Adam and Eve are ejected from Eden, the play moves into its second act, Matter Creates Matter. Through our headphones, we hear stories from survivors of near-death experiences, while Rhian Hinkley’s vast projections provide visual accompaniment. There is beauty and surrender in it, though the patterning of the projections and moving backdrop may have been sensorally overwhelming for some.
The third act, The Human Bond, brings us back to our cast, but transitions from the existentialist imaginings of gods to the very real limitations of being in a disabled body. Here, the play places the cast in lowly cleaning jobs, under the harsh instruction of their supervisor (Romany Latham), an embodiment of the limiting expectations we tend to have for people with disabilities. Throughout the scene, the performers each yearn for possibilities that society often deems unacceptable for disabled people – to drive a car, a promotion, the opportunity for a career change, or, the most human of pursuits, love. These explorations are interrupted by the discovery of a medical emergency, and as the characters scramble to support a man in what could be his final moments, they explore the experience that ultimately unites us all.
This show is beautiful for many reasons. There are wonderful surprises and reveals that entertain and delight. There is lovely light and shade in the content, which forces you to alternate between belly laughs and pondering your own human existence. The performers are terrifically engaging, despite stutters and pauses or perhaps because of them, and casting is cleverly designed to retain the pace and energy of the performance. But most importantly, the work holds true to the devised process and expression of its performers, who are so often censored and dismissed in the real world. You can imagine the conversations in rehearsal that have been kept in the work, and the characters have been established to carefully cater for the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the cast, to the extent that natural postures and speech patterns are mistaken for character choices. Mark Deans’ warmth and comic timing are infectious. Scott Price’s acerbic edge works beautifully whether he is building a world or arguing for a promotion. Sarah Mainwaring and Simon Laherty offer rare and incredibly open insight into the often-unexplored intersection of disability and sexuality. Ultimately, it is the generosity with which the actors bring you into their world that makes Lady Eats Apple such a successful, endearing and thoughtful piece.
Engaging and disarming, Lady Eats Apple is a welcome addition to the PIAF line-up. It is not only a celebration of diversity, but a celebration of struggle, of vulnerability, of humanity, and the experiences that unify us. In a world where people with disabilities are so often rendered invisible, it is well worth seeing what happens when they take the limelight.
2017 Perth International Arts Festival
Lady Eats Apple
Back to Back Theatre
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 2 – 5 Mar 2017
Tickets: $81.60 – $25.50
A PIAF co-commission