April 28 1996 may seem a long time ago, but for some it will always be yesterday. We may remember reading their stories and swore we’d remember the names of the 35 people who died so cruelly at Port Arthur, but asked now, only one name comes to mind. Tom Holloway’s exquisite and harrowing Beyond the Neck: A Quartet on Loss and Violence is a personal reflection on his visiting Port Arthur and a delicate exploration of the lonely suffering following violent trauma.
Four fictional people visit Port Arthur today. There’s a teenager who lost her father in the massacre (Philippa Spicer), a tour guide who was there (Roger Oakley), a young mother on a bus trip (Emmaline Carroll) and a boy on a family drive (Marcus McKenzie). This brave and exciting writing and captures the communal pain of Port Arthur by moving away from the unfathomable enormity of the horror and telling four personal stories that started with violent trauma.
They narrate their stories in a four-part choral-like structure that deceptively offers safe distance, but really allows the hidden emotions to drive the work and seep into our hearts. Like a soprano, alto, tenor, bass score, each have solos and their moments of harmony soar, but it’s the disruption of their dissonant notes and changing rhythms that create the tension that demands the pain and relief of resolution.
Director Suzanne Chaundy conducts like a maestro. It’s a challenging text that could collapse into sentiment in the wrong hands, but by guiding the cast to hold their emotions close, Chaundy lets the grace notes of humour offer light and understanding without the easy comfort hope or the overwhelming fear of hopelessness. And the astonishing cast maintain this balance. Each suffer alone with their secrets, but it’s their constant awareness of each other and work as a quartet that makes it so powerful.
The chamber piece is completed with a design trio who create the world and underscore and highlight each story. Dayna Morrissey’s set looks like a gallery but makes us see deep into the Tasmanian wilderness, while Philip Mcleod’s sound and Richard Vabre’s lighting are so integrated with the emotion of the stories that it’s easy not to notice how good they are.
Beyond the Neck is beautiful and unmissable theatre told by artists who understand the responsibility of telling such resonating stories and it’s so wonderful to see Red Stitch Red Stitch working with Australian writers.