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Reviews/Theatre

Hunters continue to lead the pack

15 October 2021

The Last Great Hunt’s Bite the Hand is as hilarious as a puppy and as dangerous as a pit bull. It also leaves its meaning for you to uncover – a good thing according to David Zampatti.

Bite the Hand, The Last Great Hunt ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 14 October 2021 ·

In the grey days of May last year, when even Fortress WA was locked down, I was part of a Zoom audience for a live remote performance of The Last Great Hunt’s Bite the Hand.

As I wrote at the time, I left the virtual theatre half way through the performance, disconcerted by, and a little afraid of, what I was watching and its implications for live performance.

I was also so engrossed by what I’d seen, and the story as it unfolded, that it seemed better to leave and wait for the live version whenever it was able to be staged.

It’s here, and it’s absolutely been worth the wait.

Chris Isaacs’ anthropomorphic tale of dogs who are re-programmed to speak to, and think like, their owners is shot through with high performance humour. The domesticated dogs, Alice (Arielle Gray) and Rex (Jeffrey Jay Fowler) are simply hilarious, and Isaacs’ observation of our favourite animal is often gasp-of-recognition inducing.

The human characters are darker and more troubled. Alice’s owners Dale (Amy Mathews) and Sam (Alicia Osyka) are struggling – their loving relationship is clouded by Dale’s mental health issues, and the “enhancement” of Alice’s interaction with them is seen by Sam and her brother Wes (Michael Abercromby) as a panacea.

Wes, though, is a stickler and a well-meaning arsehole, tied to the cumbersome manual that takes dogs through the intricate and restrictive stages of their adjustment. Out of love for her dog, Dale blithely ignores Wes, and eventually so does Alice.

Two women sit on the front doorstep of a weatherboard house. One has her head resting on the other's lap. The house has a white picket fence and astro turf lawn.
The human characters are darker and more troubled: Amy Mathews (Dale) and Arielle Gray (Alice). Photo: Christophe Canato

Into this dangerous mix comes another dog, Reginald (Fowler), the leader of a pack of dogs who’ve, literally, thrown off the leash of the manual and gone feral, united by their mantra “No Dog is Free until All Dogs are Free”.

Drawn to his charisma, and the sound of wild dogs howling in the night, Alice makes a fateful decision, the result of which sets up a chain of events as shocking as they are inevitable.

Isaacs, though, has not written a parable here, or at least not one I’d be prepared to sign up for.

In contrast to Animal Farm, by great co-incidence in revival now in Van Badham’s adaptation of George Orwell’s novella for Black Swan, he is not marching us in lock-step to meaning, but rather delivering a narrative from which you can take whichever ones strike you.

In some ways, then, Bite the Hand is more like Peter Shaffer’s Equus, but, unlike Shaffer’s awful play, Isaacs doesn’t try to tell us what is happening, just shows us what happens.

As we expect from The Last Great Hunt (TLGH), the creative and technical quality of Bite the Hand is both exemplary and transportable (their business plan is global though their Perth base is staunchly local).

Director Matt Edgerton’s outstanding taste, and his familiarity with TLGH’s ethos and oeuvre, have resulted in a simple, refined space and performance style in which the dogs can have our undivided attention. Bryan Woltjen’s set and costumes are workaday – and exactly as required, lit modestly and expertly by Rhiannon Petersen. If the production has an extravagance it’s Pavan Kumar Hari’s music and sound design, but it is perfectly integrated and integral.

Two people appear to be wrestling in a sparsely furnished room. One has jumped on the other's back, the other appears to be trying to wrestle him off. A third person leans on a box seat, watching intently, perhaps egging them on.
No Dog is Free until All Dogs are Free’: Pictured in their roles as dogs are Amy Mathews, Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Alicia Osyka. Photo: Christophe Canato

I’m jealous of movement director Sam Chester; if she had half as much fun working with her dogs as we had watching the result, she’d have fetched a ball!

The cast is tremendous; in many ways the heavy lifting is done by Osyka, Abercromby and Mathews; they live in the real world of the play, and it’s often a grim and tense place to be.

Gray and Fowler inhabit the world of imagination, and they take to it with enormous energy and élan; Fowler’s haughty, dangerous Reginald is a marvellous creation, more compelling than even the frantic, riotous Rex, and Gray shows once again that she has a comic genius; you think butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, but she might easily bite the hand that fed it to her.

Which is as good a way as any to describe this exciting addition to the repertoire of WA’s leading theatre company.

Bite the Hand continues at Subiaco Arts Centre until 23 October 2021.

Read a Q&A with Bite the Hand playwright Chris Isaacs.

Pictured top” Alicia Osyka, Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Amy Mathews in ‘Bite The Hand’. Photo: Christophe Canato

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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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