The cast of Games In The Backyard | The Wharf

Edna Mazya’s Games In The Backyard, I understand, is regarded as one of the best-ever Israeli plays; certainly one of its longest-running. It’s as tough as nails. So much so, perhaps only an Israeli could’ve written it.

Of course, in one sense, it’s a terrible gift. Terrible, because it’s based on a gruesomely true story that rocked the Israeli nation. A gift, because of same. The kind of powerfully moving tale a playwright has only to reach out and touch, to make a roaring success. Producer Fiona Boidi and Israeli-raised director, Netta Yashchin, are the dynamic duo who’ve had the intestinal fortitude to bring it to us, to confront us with it; at the Australian Theatre for Young People, of all places.

Here’s the synopsis:

In the summer of 1988, a horrifying rape (perpetrated in Kibbutz Shomrat, in the north of Israel) shook the entire country. Seven boys, all aged seventeen, repeatedly raped a fourteen-year-old girl, abusing her both physically and mentally.

This shocking incident served as the inspiration for one of the best-known and most successful Israeli plays ever written; a play that doesn’t only deal with the rape itself, but with a subject that’s preoccupied humanity since the dawn of its existence: relations between the sexes.

We see four young men standing on their marks as we enter the theatre. Around them are symbols of bondage, restrain and incarceration, in the form of chains. Two of the chains that become apparent a little later allude to childhood innocence, as they support a swing. The four men periodically change, on stage, from the kind of clothes 17-year-old boys might wear to the kind barristers must. They play perpetrators and defenders: a neat trick. Similarly, the victim is also the prosecutor. It makes, no doubt, for a gruelling theatrical experience behind the scenes, as well.

There’s no defending or getting around the heinous crime these young me committed, but the real courage of this play isn’t in merely documenting the rape and how it came to be, but in teasing out all the grey areas it’d be so much easier not to confront. The object is to have us squirm. And think. Deeply; not merely in reflexive, politically correct ways. Parents can’t be everywhere, nor always held accountable, but, where were this girl’s parents? Not only at the time of the incident (after dark, near a reservoir), but throughout her life? And, for that matter, where were the boys?

Who taught them, what made them think, it was ok to deal with girls and women in this way? What made them think they could get away with it? Or is the hormonal tug of adolescence so overwhelming strong, all control is abandoned? Why are men so cowardly as to do things together they might regard, privately and individually, as utterly unacceptable?

At the centre of the work is Jessica Palyga, as Dvori Machnes (the girl). Yashchin has apparently pushed her character’s precociousness all the way, to extend, expand and underscore the controversy. It’s a bold, brave decision. Palyga couldn’t be more effective. She smokes, drinks and adopts a false posture of worldliness the boys cajole her into; a worldliness they themselves don’t possess. It’s a game teenagers play. But the boys change the rules, from moment to moment. Dvori tries her best to go with the flow as they continually raise the stakes but, before she knows it, she’s no longer a player, but a pawn.

Unfortunately, the only other notable performance is by Dorje Swallow, as charismatic ringleader, Asaf Sacharov. Asaf senses Dvori’s attraction to him early on, using it to manipulate her in the cruellest of psychological experiments, of his devious design. His innate, or carefully cultivated and calculated, charm makes the proceedings all the more chilling and all the closer to a tangible take on the abstract notion of evil. While menacing at times, it’s more by dint of their written roles: Carl Batchelor, Joseph Del Re and Michael Rebetzke fail to persuade; the shoes seem too uncomfortable for them and, while understandable, the net effect is they haven’t risen to the evil written into what are, after all, real characters.

Writhe in high anxiety as you muse and mull over the rapid-fire series of questions this hard-nosed play throws in your face. Recoil as you watch the defence team rape Dvori all over again.

Bring a hip-flask. Or Valium. You might well need it.

The details: Games In The Backyard plays Studio 1 at The Wharf until December 2. Tickets on the ATYP website.

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