Physical theatre troupe Legs on the Wall’s Man with the Iron Neck, which premiered at last year’s Brisbane Festival, opened in Sydney with one minute’s silence for the five Aboriginal girls – all between the ages of 12 and 15 – who died by suicide in the first two weeks of January.
Youth suicide has been described as an epidemic in Australia, and it remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44. But as pervasive as it is, it affects some communities more than others. The suicide rate amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is more than double the national rate and suicide is the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged between 5 and 17.
This is the issue that Legs on the Wall grapples with in Man with the Iron Neck, a one-act show written by Ursula Yovich and based on a concept by Josh Bond, who co-directs the show with Gavin Robins. The physical theatre piece is by turns confronting, heart-warming and devastating – but ultimately hopeful.
Kyle Shilling in Legs on the Wall’s Man with the Iron Neck. Photo © Victor Frankowski
With wall-to-wall video projections that conjure the Australian bush, and sounds of insects and birds filtering through the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre, Man with the Iron Neck tells the story of an Australian family in a small town devastated by the suicide of promising young AFL player Bear. Bear’s father died by suicide before him, when Bear and his twin Evelyn were young children, and a eucalyptus tree (across from a Hills Hoist clothesline and sporting a swing) that grows out of Joey Ruigrok’s effective set, evokes the natural world, the domestic setting and the means of his death. Dramatic lighting by Matt Marshall and a score co-composed by Iain Grandage and Steve Francis complete the rich, sensory experience of the play.
In the wake of his best friend Bear’s suicide, Ash becomes obsessed with the story of 1930s stuntman, The Great Peters, whose act was to leap from bridges with a noose around his neck and miraculously survive, performing the stunt over and over again until one day something went wrong and he died, carnival lights and music giving these fascinations a dangerous unreality. Images recur, moments of pain are revisited again and again in grief and trauma passed down across generations, the camera capturing bushland ascends above the tree line, only to plummet down to earth.
Kyle Shilling, Caleena Sansbury and Tibian Wyles in Legs on the Wall’s Man with the Iron Neck. Photo © Victor Frankowski
In warm, heartfelt performances from Caleena Sansbury as Evelyn, Tybian Wales as her boyfriend Ash, Kyle Shilling as Bear and Ursula Yovich as Mum Rose, we see a family at play in the opening scenes – there are plenty of moments of laughter – but tragedy is soon foreshadowed. Bear is troubled by the suicide of his father, the racism he experiences on a national level – in, among other things, the treatment of Indigenous AFL star Adam Goodes – and on a personal level by his teammates and in the local community. In a vivid, frightening dreamscape, individual trauma is placed in the context of generations of colonial violence in Australia, images of English soldiers and ships emerging from the turbulent red miasma projected across the stage to haunt the contemporary tragedy.
Aerial performances allow us to see the characters’ inner lives, from the twins clutching each other suspended in the air as Mum Rose describes their birth to dream-sequences, memories and fantasies, some touching, some terrifying. The Hills Hoist, a symbol of domesticity, takes on a torture-rack spikiness as it spins above the stage, performers clinging to it desperately.
Ursula Yovich and Kyle Shilling in Legs on the Wall’s Man with the Iron Neck. Photo © Victor Frankowski
Yovich’s characters are beautifully drawn, capturing the nuances of family life and the ways grief can manifest itself. But while ultimately Man with the Iron Neck celebrates resilience and the idea of ‘choosing to survive,’ the final scenes feel hurried, the catharsis of each character a little too brief and gently didactic – though never less than warm-hearted – compared with the powerful earlier moments, as the show attempts to balance an unflinching look at the grief and trauma of suicide with a sense of hope for the future. What it does do particularly well, however, is highlight the importance of talking to and looking out for each other – small moments of caring have a profound resonance.
While Man with Iron Neck is raw and confronting at times – and may be particularly so for those who have experienced the loss of a friend or loved one to suicide – it is deeply moving and probes an issue that remains relevant to all Australians. That the show’s opening at the Sydney Festival was preceded so recently by such tragedy, in deaths spread across the country, reinforces the desperate need we have as a nation to talk about youth suicide, and the many and complex factors (including ongoing, entrenched racism and intergenerational trauma) that can exacerbate it.
With its willingness to tackle the subject head on, and with such eloquence (not to mention the enrichment events and performances such as the music in the foyer, discussions and a healing workshop) Man with the Iron Neck will no doubt be an important part of the healing process.
Man with the Iron Neck is at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival until January 26
It plays at the Adelaide Festival Centre as part of the Adelaide Festival March 8 – 11
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in the performance or in this review, the following organisations may be able to provide help and advice
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636