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Multiple Bad Things

A more muted performance from Back to Back Theatre
Back to Back Theatre
by
ABR Arts 03 June 2024

Multiple Bad Things

A more muted performance from Back to Back Theatre
Back to Back Theatre
by
ABR Arts 03 June 2024
Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price (photograph by Ferne Millen)
Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price (photograph by Ferne Millen)

The setting is described in the program as a workplace at the end of the world – but what kind of workplace? Well, imagine that a multinational technology company has bought up Valhalla for warehouse space and a new fulfilment centre. Above and behind the stage is a kind of elongated portal through which we see billowing clouds, purple and pink, shot through with lightning. At centre stage, on a shimmering mat the same size and shape as the portal, there sits a great pile of gold scaffolding, which might be shelving or the frame for a rack of servers – or who knows what. Off to one side is a small desk with a computer, lamp, some papers and a small menagerie of plastic animal figurines.

The quartet of workers who run this corporate outpost on the other side of the abyss wander about in a desultory way, piecing the scaffold together or not, as they see fit. With their motley hi-vis uniforms, all pink and orange and peach, they look as if they have rolled across the burning rainbow bridge. Meanwhile, ominous noises echo through the great hall: thuds and hums and hollow reverberations, all of which seem unrelated to the scene before us, as if they were leakages from another world.

This is Multiple Bad Things, a new work by Geelong’s Back to Back Theatre, a company of neurodivergent performers with an enormous international reputation. As has been widely reported, the company was awarded the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Biennale earlier this year. Two years ago, the company won the Ibsen Award, the most highly prized international theatre award. It remains a permanent fixture on the global festival circuit, while also maintaining a busy domestic program.

Bron Batten, Scott Price, and Sarah Mainwaring (photograph by Ferne Millen)Bron Batten, Scott Price, and Sarah Mainwaring (photograph by Ferne Millen)

Much of Back to Back’s work over the past two decades, the work for which the company is now fêted by international critics and curators, was made with company artistic director Bruce Gladwin working with the ensemble. Gladwin, however, is not part of the creative team for this new project. Instead, this short but decidedly multivocal piece was devised by ensemble veterans Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, and Scott Price, artistic associates Tamara Searle and Ingrid Voorendt, junior company members Breanna Deleo and Ben Oakes, performance artist Natasha Jynel and performer Bron Batten. That is a lot of contributors, especially when you consider that Multiple Bad Things also features a detailed soundscape created by Zoë Barry, elaborate visual designs by Anna Cordingley, and extensive audio-visual effects created by Rhian Hinkley. The story of this sprawling collaboration, which remains partly obscured by the silences and ambiguities of the performance, is the most intriguing thing about this production.

In any case, while there are plenty of similarities and continuities with earlier Back to Back productions, the tone of Multiple Bad Things is noticeably different from, say, the great trilogy of festival shows from the mid-2000s: small metal objects (2005), Food Court (2008) and Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (2011). This is a more muted performance. It doesn’t rely on those grand, turbulent, emotional scenes, full of complex, moody feeling, that made the earlier work so memorable. Instead, the depicted conflicts – the shouting and the taunting – are like so many distant murmurs, barely disturbing the otherworldly calm.

Laherty begins proceedings, addressing the audience directly, warning that bad things will be said and done in the course of the show – potentially offensive things – but that we should remember that it is, after all, only theatre. Having delivered this Puck-like reminder, he withdraws to the desk at the side of the stage. He sits with his back to the audience, headphones on, playing solitaire on the computer and watching animal videos. Twice he interrupts the action: he gets to his feet, walks across the stage and retrieves a snack or drink. The scene breaks off as he traverses the space, a cautious figure in mien and movement, a unifying presence, a constant against which the struggles of the rest of the ensemble can be referenced.

Laherty’s role is comparable to that of the attendant played for many years by company member Mark Deans. It is characteristic of this production that our attention is constantly pulled to the periphery where Laherty sits in front of his screen.

Throughout the middle parts of the show, Batten, Mainwaring, and Price squabble and skirmish, although the cause of their bickering is not always clear. Bron Batten comes on like a nightmare Valkyrie of progressiveness and inclusiveness, reminding Price of his male privilege, offering unsolicited advice to Mainwaring, and announcing to everyone that she, too, has diverse abilities. Price roars and stomps and flourishes a large inflatable flamingo. It all ends in direct parody, with Price tearing off his shirt and Batten transforming into an image of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, one breast exposed and a weapon brandished over her head. Mainwaring remains aloof, inviting a historical perspective, noting for example that there are now more fake flamingos in the world than real ones.

The sculpture at centre stage is eventually completed. Once lifted off the floor, it reveals the outline of a suburban house. The image is reminiscent of House in the Sky, the roadside art piece made of steel cables that hangs above the Princes Freeway. Laherty and Mainwaring move behind the sculpture, where they dwell for a long moment, allowing new resonances to emerge: the gilded cage of the family home, the desire for order and convention in a world of chaos. They embrace. Like many of the stage effects used in this production – including the computer animation – it is a striking image, but not necessarily moving.

And yet what follows, the epilogue, does offer something more poignant. Once again, Laherty addresses the audience, reminding us that suffering is real but that theatre is only theatre. He then raises his arms to the side, a slow and delicate gesture, then joins them in front, forming what we can now, after the encounter behind the sculpture, recognise as the outline of an embrace – this time directed towards the audience.


 

Multiple Bad Things (Back to Back Theatre) runs until 9 June 2024 at the Malthouse Theatre. Performance attended: 29 May.

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