Back to Back push the physical, aural and visual boundaries of contemporary theatre

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Australian theatre company Back to Back are an ensemble of actors with perceived intellectual disabilities who co-author and perform their work. Their latest show Lady Eats Apple at the Barbican is part of LIFT 2018, a theatre festival that celebrates unconventional, radical, international theatre. Review by Natasha Sutton Williams

For over thirty years Back to Back Theatre’s mission has been to challenge the conventions of what is possible in theatre, and question the assumptions we hold about ourselves and others. With Lady Eats Apple they do just that.

The show is a large-scale, experiential theatre piece, integrating surround sound, visuals and an ever-morphing stage design to illustrate a world that is both miniscule and cosmic. The piece deals with death, love and power with striking boldness. It’s a triptych tale of creation and destruction. It’s an inflatable universe where Gods kill each other with their fingertips and theatre cleaners fall in love in the upper circle.

Back to Back Theatre, Lady Eats Apple, LIFT 2018, Scott Price, Mark Deans, Brian Lipson, Sarah Mainwaring, Phioto © Zan Wimberley

Bruce Gladwin, Artistic Director of Back to Back, describes the piece as, “Constructed around three acts, each act is a short work in its own right. With each story comes the creation of a new scenography and at its conclusion a destruction, a metaphor for the cycle we are all familiar with.”

Before you enter the cavernous Barbican theatre, you are directed by ushers to walk an unconventional route to the back stage area of the theatre. You are met by a large inflatable entrance with two flaps: a vagina you must push your way through, as if you have just been born into a new, unknown world. Now you are in a huge black cave, the walls made of one gigantic curved black sheet encompassing the entirety of the space. Once seated you are asked to put headphones on. Without realising it, you are sitting in the centre of the Barbican stage. Now the action begins.

Back to Back Theatre, Lady Eats Apple, LIFT 2018, Scott Price, Photo © Jeff Busby

Having been conceived, made and performed by disabled artists, they cast themselves in a dynamic spectrum of roles. From the wearisome cleaner who just wants a promotion to the Old Testament God who is creating man in his image. Or almost, as this God wryly points out, ‘He’s a bit shorter than me.’ There is power in the stark directness and genuine humour of these characters.

This creative team are addressing the major issues of life and death, love and hate, time and space. They project these themes onto the biggest possible canvas, they take us on a joyride through the universe, all the while inextricably weaving what it means to be disabled into the narrative. There are extraordinary design reveals that completely alter the space; in response the audience’s sensory perceptions morph and evolve. This is a show for the senses as well as the mind.

The beauty of Lady Eats Apple lies in its sensory experience. Back to Back Theatre’s attention to detail using light, sound and design is immaculate. They create a complete audio-visual stimulation, transporting the audience to three different worlds. You go on a journey through the creation and destruction of Gods and men. Your heart goes out to each of the characters; then they disappear to become something new. Coming out the other side, one thing is for certain: Back to Back are bending the boundaries of what contemporary theatre can achieve.

Back to Back Theatre present The Democratic Set
17 – 20 July 2018
InBetween Time, Bristol

23 – 27 July 2018
Milton Keynes International Festival 2018