What role can or should art play in a country’s understanding of a national tragedy? Just as Red Stitch is preparing to launch their season of Tom Holloway’s Beyond The Neck – a play dealing with victims of the Port Arthur massacre – news is flooding in that Sydney-based artist Rodney Pople has controversially won the Glover Prize for Port Arthur, a work already being discussed as ‘the Martin Bryant painting’. Red Stitch’s imminent production is the premier showing of Holloway’s play in Victoria, and the fact that Beyond The Neck’s season kicks off within a week of Pople’s $35,000 win will surely be a catalyst for some discussion.
For Beyond The Neck actor Emmaline Carroll, the ability of art to distil and explore emotions and perspectives, thereby framing and reframing public discussion, is important for a country to come to terms with such an event, and perhaps under-utilised. “There’s really not a great deal of material out there,” she says. “There are books and documentaries, but there have been no plays or things like that.” She adds that a couple of members of the cast and crew were from Tasmania: “They’ve both told anecdotes of how it’s still a very hush-hush thing. People really don’t like to talk about it.”
Carroll is of the opinion that Beyond The Neck has been important in addressing the Port Arthur Massacre in several ways. “It’s a play. It’s theatre. Theatre is not always there to educate or anything like that, but [the shooting] was pretty important in our lifetime as Australians. I remember the event and most people do, but I really can’t recall many of the details – and a lot of people don’t – because we weren’t really told many details.” Bearing in mind that the shooting happened fifteen years ago, before the floodgates really opened on the Information Age, the lack of prevalent detailed information certainly reflects on a certain discretion. “It was so private,” Carroll asserts. She references those men and women with real-life accounts of the massacre who agreed to be interviewed by Holloway, for the purposes of writing the play that would interweave these accounts: “I think it was a cathartic experience for those involved in that collaborative process of telling their stories and being heard.”
Beyond its sensitive subject matter, Carroll believes Beyond The Neck is an exciting piece of theatre in its own right, an opinion reflected in the play’s 2007 debut as one of only ten chosen to be part of the Royal Court Theatre’s International Young Playwrights’ Festival in London. “The play is called a quartet on loss and violence, and it’s written like a quartet with an overture, first and second movement, and a coda,” she explains. “There are four characters – not all of who have a direct link to the Port Arthur Massacre – but they’re all experiencing their own journey of either tragedy or loss and they come together at the Port Arthur site. And I think that’s refreshing. It’s not like: ‘We’re going to do a play about persons A,B,C and D who were affected by the Port Arthur massacres.’ It’s really just stories about people who are experiencing extreme things and how they deal with that.”
Inpress Magazine, Issue #1216