Tasmanian born playwright Tom Holloway was just 17 years old when the news of the Port Arthur massacre came through on the radio on the 28th April, 1996. He was delivering pizza at the time. He promptly put an end to his shift.
The events stirred up a lot of thoughts and feelings within him. A playwright by nature, his way of integrating and responding to these tragic events was to start working on a play about these tragic events. The result is his play BEYOND THE NECK (2005). The title refers to the stretch of land that leads up to the site.
This Holloway play has a personal significance for me. I was at the Australian National Playwrights Conference, now a playwriting festival that comes under Playwrighting Australia, where BEYOND THE NECK was being workshopped, with Holloway working with a director and a group of actors.
The current King Street production is the second time that I have seen this play performed in Sydney. In May 2009 it was part of Belvoir’s then B Sharp season, playing downstairs in a production with a cast that included Lex Marinos, Anita Hegh and Anna Houston who can be currently seen in Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s VENUS IN FUR.
Holloway has chosen a poetic, non-linear narrative to tell his story, a complex style that some theatregoers may be put off by, and find too difficult to contend with.
Ten years after the massacre, educational tour parties of the site are taking place, and Holloway’s story follows one such tour, and in particular four people on the tour.
All four characters are unnamed. There’s a 73 year old man who was there on the day and shares the his story and his pain- played by David Ritchie, a young woman who lost her father in the massacre in the slaying and is still highly irrational- played by Dana Brierley, another young woman who flashbacks to the day and time of the massacre and remembers how she felt so thrown and weird at the time as if she was psychically connected to the horrifying events- played by Jessica Hobden, and a young 7 year old boy who is processing his own horror time when he was accidentally abandoned by his parents and starts hearing the voice of an imaginary person who is encouraging him to commit a violent act. It as if all four people are being triggered and affected by the darkness
One of the main themes that Holloway explores is that of Karma..the unmistakable parallel that the slaying took place on the site which used to be one of the worst, most severe convict prisons.
In one of the most heartfelt scenes..as part of the tour…one of the women goes inside one of the old solitary confinement cells and has a panic attack..it is so disturbing for her.
If one can contend with the complexity of this piece, no small ask, BEYOND THE NECK is a rewarding night at the theatre.
There are some scenes that just get right inside. Like the scene when the old man is sharing his memory of the day with one of the young women, and recalls how after the mass slaying a woman came racing up to him and poured herself into his arms in one massive hug. That is all she could do. The two then hug.
Markus Weber’s current production is satisfying. His approach features a very pared back, direct style, with the action complemented by atmospheric, instrumental soundscape. The acting by the very experienced David Ritchie, together with Jessica Hobden, Dana Brierley, and are distinguished by their naturalness and frankness.
Music plays an integral part in the production. An instrumental soundscape, featuring mainly piano and guitar, plays throughout the work and lends a lot of atmosphere.
By journey’s end, we have been taken to a profound and respectful place- a theatrical monument to this dark event in Australia’s history.
A joint Epicentre Theatre Company and Emu Productions presentation, BEYOND THE NECK is playing the King Street Theatre until the 13th June.