The cast of Super Discount | Wharf 1 (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1 production of Geelong-based Back To Back’s Super Discount arrests, even before it begins. On entering the theatre, one becomes aware of a magical site: a mini-me twister, apparently effected primitively (with dry ice and a few well-placed electric fans), rises heavenwards. It’s a neat trick that strikes as augural.

This was my first exposure to a Back To Back production, though I’ve certainly become aware of the heady reputation that precedes it. Without having read any other reviews, because of my lateness into the fray I’ve nonetheless become aware of a highly affirmative critical buzz about this play. Which makes my reservations that much harder to express, I suppose, given the nature of the company (all will become clearer). For, yes, I’ve reservations. Those reservations, however, don’t rest with the vision or mission of the company, which is, at once, understated, bold and necessary. To allude to those, I’ll borrow from the company’s own description, in saying it was formed, way back in 1987 (why haven’t we heard a lot more of it, sooner?), “to create theatre with people who are perceived to have a disability”. Yes, the choice of words alone is provocative. This is, indeed, where it begins to get interesting. And confounding.

One thing’s for sure, on the strength of Super Discount, the company and this production easily live up to the ensemble’s hope, that “our shows will make you question things”. In that, SD succeeds, surpassingly. So much so, a number of questions preying on my mind remain unanswered, going on two weeks out from seeing the show. For example, given the de-emphasis on disability, does one assess their work as theatre of the disabled, or just theatre? I’m all too conscious that, even in raising these questions (which remain, more or less, politely ignored), I’ll raise, in all likelihood, eyebrows. And ire.

My personal inclination is it should be assessed as theatre, per se. Yes, the Paralympics, if I can draw that parallel (no pun intended), isn’t the Olympics and has, to a large extent I s’pose, a discrete audience, but with exposure to the ‘mainstream’. In fact, the Paralympics has done much, I’d surmise, for bringing disability to the forefront, overturning the persistence of a medieval societal model in which people deemed, by arbitrary markers, less physically, mentally or emotionally agile (for want of a better word), have been sidelined, hidden, patronised, put down, ignored and otherwise abused, overtly or covertly. Discounted, you might say. But Back to Back hasn’t entered the theatrical Paralympics in staging Super Discount at The Wharf, slap-bang in the beating heart of Sydney’s theatre scene. It’s gone, or been recruited to go, to the Olympics. This, one assumes, means it’s determined or at least prepared to pit itself against other mainstream companies. And so, I feel, I must judge their work in this context. In a way, it’s a choice the company has made, not so much I.

Judged on this basis, I have to say, I found it slow; lacking momentum. Because of the disabilities of the ensemble? Not so much, I don’t think; if at all. I find plenty of theatre that’s lacking in this and, of course, other respects. But Super Discount succeeds in what are, arguably, much more important ways. Not necessarily on-the-spot, I should say. For me, it was a slow burn. It seeped; filtered down, over ensuing days.

One of the levels on which it succeeds is in the astonishing charisma of many of the actors. I’m thinking of you, especially, Brian Tilley, Simon Laherty, Scott Price and Mark Deans. (Ironically, if there was an actor I found seriously lacklustre, it was the only “abled” member of the cast, David Woods. Then again, perhaps that was a point, if not entirely the point. Certainly, the conceit his character harbours, by dint of which he’s envious of his colleagues’ special status, is blackly comical and rather ingenious, tending to confirm the theory.

Another success is in the questions it raises about what constitutes super heroism: with a few tricks up our sleeve, a modicum of Oz-style wizardry, we can appear and, perhaps, even be, extraordinary. Iconic performances such as Dustin Hoffman’s turn as Rain Man are raised and interrogated: why could that role not have been played by an actor grappling with all that comes of being an autistic savant? Wouldn’t that have been the most honest and authentic directorial decision? These are difficult, perplexing questions with no easy answers. Maybe no adequate answers at all. In Super Discount, there is a central ongoing argument: why can Deans not play Deans? Instead, his colleagues are auditioning for the part. It’s a bit of a mind-fuck, which can have you struggling as you watch. Fortunately, elements such as Shio Otani’s deliberately ridiculous costumes leaven the dough.

Under the stewardship of Bruce Gladwin, this is courageous theatre. No. Not because many of the people involved have disabilities. I can’t imagine anything more patronising than observing that. Rather, because of where they dare to go. If there’s a fault, it may lie in a missed opportunity; what has been left out, rather than what went in. Yes, we can all be superheroes, at times, given all the right conditions. But perhaps the greater truth, as a long lost friend pointed out over coffees as we discussed my experience of this work, is that we’re all disabled in some way. We saw Superman (or Supermen and a woman) in stark relief. I’m just not sure we saw his aversion to Kryptonite so clearly. Perhaps our fame and celebrity-obsessed culture has become carried away with super heroism. Perhaps it’s time we celebrated the Clark Kents in us all, rather than the caped crusaders, such as they exist.

A spare stage certainly throws the focus onto performance and text, which veers, quite wildly, between poignancy, philosophy and tedium. Perhaps the last word should go to Andrew Upton who, after all, has put Back To Back front-and-centre on an STC stage. “Their work is beautiful and horrible, wild and wonderful, moving and rigorous”; though, I have to say, in all honesty, I wasn’t really moved and rigour was what was sorely lacking. But I can easily concur with the former descriptors, which seems like a more than good enough basis for us to see more. Much more.

The details: Super Discount plays Wharf 1 until October 19 — tickets on the company website. The show moves to Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre in Melbourne on November 13 to December 1 — tickets on the company website.

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