Beyond The Neck
In April 1996, a man named Martin Bryant unconscionably thrust a small Tasmanian community into international repute. Arriving at Port Arthur Bay’s historic site, he unloaded his shotgun hundreds of times, picking off 35 locals and foreigners one by one. For some of the victims, efforts to escape were futile. Others were lucky enough to survive, but wounded in other ways and left bearing the trauma of what being spared that day meant. And with that came the inspiration for Tom Holloway‘s Beyond The Neck.
Named for a geographical bottleneck visitors must pass through to reach Port Arthur, the play was shown for the first time in Tasmania in 2008 marking over a decade since the massacre. The playwright, a 17-year-old when it happened, collected stories from survivors and weaved together a mostly fictional account of their trauma and recovery. Having shown in Sydney as well, the play comes to Melbourne’s Red Stitch Theatre for the first time, all the more poignant as the majority Port Arthur’s survivors live in Victoria. While possibly resurfacing painful events the story still resonates for audiences and cast-members alike.
Marcus McKenzie, who plays a young boy in the production, was nine years old and living in Launceston at the time of the shooting. Having seen the show many years ago in Tasmania, he has a very personal attachment to the story, roughly analogous to his own experience of the tragedy. He says he’s gained perception as he’s grown up, and through this role, of what it all means.
“In a strange way, as a child, it didn’t really affect me very profoundly. I had this strange sensation of desensitisation to it, in a way. And it wasn’t until later in life that it started to affect me quite a lot. I started to realise the implications of it, as an event, and what it meant to me as a human. It’s strange – the sheer violence of it, and the sheer horror of it only struck me as I grew older. It was almost like I had this reverse process of sensitisation to the horror of it.”
And the details are pretty gruesome. Reading reports, the merciless madman seemed on a possessed rampage – the term ‘killing spree’ is accurate in this instance. Bryant wasn’t given a trial, so convinced were the authorities that recounting the events would be too distressing for those involved. But in this act of protection, Mackenzie notes a lot of Tasmanians didn’t experience a sense of retribution that perhaps they deserved.
“We talk about things like moving on, and whether those things are actually really possible, or whether we deal with them in a sense that we incorporate them into who we are, and we just change and we grow or we don’t. I think there are people directly or indirectly affected by the Port Arthur tragedy who have very much got on with their lives, and left it behind. And I think there are people who are still at square one.”
Marcus used his own experiences as fodder for the role, revisiting himself at age seven. As well as playing his own character he takes part in the chorus, supporting the other part of the story. His primary role, though, is playing a boy, whose parents aren’t the best communicators, he said, and examines how information is revealed to him.
“It’s a really difficult thing to do because a lot of your life blurs together between five and twelve so there aren’t many reference points to go off. I looked at what I was doing at school at the time, who I was friends with, and the key thing psychologically was what kind of things did I want when I was that age, what things did I need.”
The biggest theatrical challenge in playing this role, though, could be simply that he isn’t a child. “Playing a young boy when you’re an adult requires a lot of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, so for me it’s been a real question of how to meet that halfway. We all know I’m not a kid here, but let’s try and put that behind us and get on with it. And at the same time I also want you to not have to worry about that because I want you to be comfortable in feeling that I am who I say I am.”
It seems that despite the horrific events the play is foreshadowed by, the strength in survival is the most important part – grief and coming to terms. It shies away from the shooting, as such, and focuses on the living elements of the story. “I think Tom Holloway’s made a really deliberate choice to put it into a wider context. The play is about loss, about grief, all these heavy concepts, and I think he deliberately broadens the scope of that into aspects of life – how we deal with things that just happen. And also it’s what people are capable of doing.”
In fact, we get a sense that Holloway has written the play as an invitation for us to grieve over the loss together. “There’s a real sense of community within the play, that the audience is part of this story and they’re a really crucial part in every story, moving on, and I guess that’s why Tom’s decided to make it a piece of theatre. So it can be dealt with in a communal sense. “
BY BELLA ARNOTT-HOARE
Beyond The Neck is on at Red Stitch Theatre from Friday March 16 until Saturday April 14.