Where does theatre belong?

6 May 2020

Could live-streamed performance flourish as a new art-form, once Coronavirus restrictions lift? The Last Great Hunt’s live-streamed script-reading of Chris Isaac’s Bite the Hand gives David Zampatti pause for thought.

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The Last Great Hunt’s season of Chris Isaac’s new work Bite the Hand is one of thousands of Australian shows cancelled due to Coronavirus-related restrictions. Unable to hold physical rehearsals, much less perform the work in the theatre, the company decided to present an online reading of the script instead, which was conducted over Zoom and live-streamed via YouTube, Friday 2 May.

After checking it out, David Zampatti considers the potential – or not – of live-streamed performance.

I’m not in the habit of walking out on shows. It’s embarrassing (and invites a storm of social media abuse), so, cravenly, I’ve only done it a couple of times, and then because what I was enduring simply compelled me to.

However, I did do it again on Friday night, about halfway through The Last Great Hunt’s read performance of Chris Isaac’s new play Bite the Hand.

The circumstances were unusual, though. As I was streaming the show at home, in isolation, there was no-one to notice or betray me in to those whose efforts I was abandoning. All I did was turn my device off.

More importantly, I didn’t leave because I hated what I was watching – far from it.

More importantly, I didn’t leave because I hated what I was watching – far from it. I was so taken by Bite the Hand and so intrigued by what was developing in the storyline and the characters that I didn’t want to pre-empt my enjoyment of the “finished” product when, Inshallah, we all get to see it live and together in a theatre next year.

So, a little sadly, I enforced some self-imposed spoiler alertness.

Chris Isaacs’s writing sits in the centre of The Last Great Hunt’s multifarious interests and dramatic devices. The premise – that pet dogs can be engineered to speak and listen to their owners in human language – isn’t unique, but Isaacs gives it a fresh, humorous twist and uses it to set up some fascinating relationships between dogs and their humans, and between those humans.

Much of its humour arises from his exact observation of what dogs are saying to us without spoken language (though I’ve never met a dog who didn’t understand “walkies”), and the ways we communicate with our pets.

A rehearsal of a scene from the second act of ‘Bite the Hand’. Pictured are (L-R top): Amy Mathews as Haha, Hayley McElhinney as Princess, Jeffrey Jay Fowler as Reg, (L-R bottom): Arielle Gray as Alice and Michael Abercromby as Ziggy. NB: David Zampatti did not view the second act because he wants to see it for the first time in the theatre.

It’s splendidly brought to life by Arielle Gray and Jeffrey Jay Fowler, as the woofas Alice and Rex, and their owners Sam (Amy Mathews), Dale (Hayley McElhinney) and Wes (Michael Abercromby). I’d switched off before the owners also played other dogs – another treat awaiting me! All cast members give totally satisfying performances, the more impressive as each is alone in their own home and interacting only remotely with each other and us by Zoom. The effect is striking and surprisingly nuanced (like, I imagine, radio plays seemed in their era) and, it’s possible to argue, truer to the text and the writer’s intentions than when they are folded into the colour and action of live theatre.

The effect was striking and surprisingly nuanced … and, it’s possible to argue, truer to the text and the writer’s intentions than when they are folded into the colour and action of live theatre.

Is this, then, a new performance form that may continue and develop once we are free to congregate again? Could there come a time when we pay for live performances given in real time each night on screens as an alternative to “in person” theatre?

I think, and hope, not, because of the way it made me feel (the real reason I switched it off). I had imagined I’d enjoy a sense of unity – with actors whose work I admire and look forward to, and with an audience, many of whom are friends, friendly acquaintances and colleagues. But, instead, I felt more isolated, even lonely (a sensation I’m not given to), even more reduced by the exigencies of our present situation.

Rather than feeling together, I felt acutely alone. And it’s being together, in carne, that is an existential part of theatre, and nothing can substitute for it.

So I’m eager to find out where the intriguing Bite the Hand goes, and to seeing this engaging and skilful cast take it there. Back where it belongs.

Bite the Hand will be presented in an actual theatre, once Coronavirus restrictions are lifted. The Last Great Hunt will announce performance dates once these are confirmed. For more info head to www.thelastgreathunt.com/

Pictured top: Behind the scenes – a performer’s view of the ‘Bite the Hand’ script reading.

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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