A Lucid Illustration of Erratic, Wayward Human Substance: Jonathan Dunk Reviews SUDS’ production of ‘Black Hands / Dead Section’

Black Hands / Dead Section directed by Zach Beavon-Collin. Sydney University Dramatic Society until 13th August at the PACT Theatre, 107 Railway Parade, Erskineville.

Photo by Clare Hawley.

Photo by Clare Hawley.

At its best student theatre is an unruly, brawling, defiance of the conventions and strictures of cultural economy, at its worst, a sycophantic imitation of them. Sydney University Dramatic Society’s production of Van Badham’s stark Brechtian epic Black Hands / Dead Section, directed by Zach Beavon-Collin and produced by Victor Kalka, lands squarely in the former category.

Badham’s script traces the formation, activities, and demise of the Rote Armee Fraktion, otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, throughout the 70’s in West Germany. The narrative of idealistic youth impelled to armed resistance by corruption and collusion is a sobering one, and the text’s portrayal of violence is passionately ambivalent. On the one hand the young revolutionaries’ almost erotic embrace of violence – an ecstatic rejection of the bourgeois ethic of compromise – is critically illustrated, replete with casual cruelty and disastrous ineptitude. On the other, the crushing, monolithic power of the state edifice is fathomed with Orwellian horror. The way Badham, and Beavon-Collin, resist drawing a reductive and sentimental allegory between evils is a salient ideological merit.

Naturally, it’s imperfect. The cast of twenty-nine is untrained and unpaid, and Badham’s three-hour script spans a chaotic decade of argument and event. At times it’s messy, awkward, and abrupt. Actors proclaim themselves too loudly, grasping at shreds of character and context. The erotics of utopian studenthood are somewhat overdone. A smug turtleneck misquotes Bakhtin to the knowing titter of bellbottoms and pencil-skirts through a miasma of honeyrose, because, you know, people in The Past smoked. A great victory comrades, someone cries, let’s go skinny-dipping!

This approach raised my hackles in the first act, mainly because it so easily becomes a prelude to platitudinous dénouements purporting to show the collision of youthful naïveté with the ‘real’ world of getting and spending. That would have been disastrous here, because of course, Marxism’s truest context and subject is the future. Brecht’s magnificent talismanic poem An die Nachgeborenen encapsulates this poignantly.

Blessedly, my suspicions proved inaccurate. The play moves firmly towards its meaning, excavating a tragic structure from the bloody detritus of history. What might, in less intelligent hands, have evolved into sententious Hobbesian bullshit became a compellingly lucid illustration of erratic, wayward human substance subjected to the pitiless mechanism of the state.

Because, writing as an educator, and remembering my introductory dichotomy, students are inept, wooden, passionate, awkward, over-eager, tentatively performative, and ideologically inconsistent at the best of times. It follows that a student revolution should be rough-hewn, should blunder and repeat and revise, wake up to itself seminude on an unfamiliar carpet halfway through the second act smelling of vomit and average whiskey.

Yes, it’s easy to patronize student, student theatre and student politics. This production takes this cultural bias and incorporates it into its mimetic function. In the play’s third act the frenetic excess of youth collides with the brutal stasis of hegemony. Without giving too much away, this section, by far the play’s strongest, powerfully illustrates depredations of state power in a manner damningly relevant to the condition of Australian politics.

This, I think, was the play’s most resonant paradox. While the excesses of violent resistance are easily condemned, when the veneer of capitalist hegemony so comfortably engenders atrocities, and the recalcitrant structures of democracy prove incapable of redress, what ethical recourse remains?

The fixity of this moral imperative lives in the custody of youth, in art and politics, who inherit futurity, and are not bonded in compromise to the torpidly unimaginative status quo. This spirit was fiercely eloquent in this production. The play’s many structural difficulties were handled adroitly by Beavon-Collin, and the stark atmosphere of the period skilfully elucidated by Kalka. Of the cast the most memorable performances were Alice Birbara’s fierce rendering of Gudrun Ensslin, and Helena Parker’s exquisitely nuanced Ulrike Meinhof. A special mention goes to Ryan Devlin’s highly effective sound design.

 – Jonathan Dunk

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Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review,Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

Bookings for Black Hands / Dead Section are available online at https://www.trybooking.com/Booking/BookingEventSummary.aspx?eid=212586

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