I’m in a packed audience at the Battersea Arts Centre to watch Back to Back Theatre’s show The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, and wondering what draws people to this production? I’m here to see an Australian theatre company far from home. Like others, I am interested in access and disability. And then there’s that weird title: who is the prey, and who is the hunter? Whatever the reason, we’re here as individuals who are very different, but alike in sharing the same experience: the basic condition of live theatre, surely? And somehow, by the end of the evening, this deceptively simple play immerses me in a remarkable relationship that brings about that same conclusion. What could be a straightforward ‘us and them’ story by disabled actors becomes a fascinatingly intricate exploration of behaviours, shared responsibilities and consequences.
In a community hall in Geelong, Australia three disabled activists prepare for a public meeting. Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price put out chairs, whilst a huge captioning board captures their speech, converting it to text. The AI mistypes, deletes and rewrites their words. Scott is mansplaining to Sarah: ironically, he’s performing the patronising attitude so often associated with speaking to the disabled. It’s beautifully dry humour that immediately puts us at ease. They physically divide off the auditorium space with a strip of tape, separating the audience and performers; marking our difference.
Joined by Simon Laherty, their meeting starts with a reminder that the hall is on Wadawarrung land. The audience laughs as the name of the aboriginal tribe is mispronounced and mistyped on the board, and Simon declares it’s too hard to make the effort to correct it. And right there, we’re stopped in our tracks. They have us questioning our insensitive behaviour. How disrespectful is that laughter? A precedent is set: a recognition of wrongs needing to be righted. And now we are all part of that process.
This is a complex, considered and enormously funny production, articulated with clarity and flair by Bruce Gladwin’s direction. It deals with vital issues, from discrimination against the disabled, to identity, sexual politics, and basic human rights. It shockingly reveals a history of abuse of the disabled by means of Hasbro boardgames: who knew Buckaroo leaves us all complicit? Complicated ideas are eloquently expressed through the crafted script and exquisitely paced performances, whilst Lachlan Carrick’s evocative sound design bringing emphasis and energy exactly where required.
These characters are clearly not simply “activists with intellectual disabilities”. They have differing opinions; they’re vulnerable; they’re hugely funny (Scott’s epic rise to power made me laugh out loud). They are revealed as humans, whose idiosyncrasies resist a single definition. The talented cast perform stereotypes only to flip them: to challenge audience responses, and disrupt accepted power dynamics. It’s staggeringly effective.
In a chilling turn, the giant captions board insidiously becomes a fourth character. Translating their words, the AI has power to control the voices of the disabled, and we the readers put our humanity at risk by complacently using such technology to bypass human interaction with them. We all risk being disabled by such actions, and those ‘second class citizens’ are the experts we will look to for help. It’s a stark, well-executed argument that left me needing time to reflect.
As the show concludes, the stage is cleared and the ‘meeting’ ends. The dividing strip is removed: a reminder that we all share the same space and a global experience. Our lives are interdependent.
This is a striking, thought-provoking piece about a world of mutual responsibility, ethics, and our shared humanity. I look forward to seeing more work from Back to Back.
Written by: Mark Deans, Michael Chan, Bruce Gladwin, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price, Sonia Teuben
Directed by: Bruce Gladwin
Composition by: Luke Howard Trio – Daniel Farrugia, Luke Howard, Jonathon Zion
Sound Design by: Lachlan Carrick
Lighting Design by: Andrew Livingston, bluebottle
Screen Design by: Rhian Hinkley, lowercase
Costume Design by: Shio Otani
AI Voiceover by: Belinda McClory
Script Consultancy by: Melissa Reeves
Translation by: Jennifer Ma
Produced by: Back To Back Theatre
The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes plays at Battersea Arts Centre until 22 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.