Take a familiar good versus evil narrative. Set it amidst an apocalyptic end of the world blizzard in the permafrost, construct two concurrent meta-realities concerned with sticky issues like morality within artistic representation and what truly constitutes a superhero and you’re halfway towards Super Discount, the latest offering from Geelong’s subversive Back to Back Theatre ensemble. If it sounds convoluted, remember that this is the company whose last performance centred upon a displaced Indian deity on a journey to reclaim the holy swastika symbol from Nazi Germany.
Like the extremely successful Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Super Discount’s unlikely subject matter is at least in part a product of the fascinations of the actors who make up the professional, full time theatre company.
“Brian Tilley, who is in the ensemble, possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of the superhero genre,” explains Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin. “His obsession was an initial driver for a collaboration that took place in the development stages of the show, between the company and Tim Sharp, a young autistic artist from Brisbane who has been drawing a character called Laser Beak Man for about ten years.”
While Tilley’s understanding of the realm of heroes and villains runs deep, he is far from alone in his preoccupation with the genre, which has firmly held the attention of audiences since it emerged roughly 80 years ago. Where in the 1930s Superman pitted the dashing saviour against common street crims and thugs, each decade has seen the antihero reimagined to align with changing social and political climates – the ’40s demonised Nazis and the Japanese, a strong science fiction theme that embodied Communism emerged in the ’60s and since the ’80s, corporate greed has been a recurring thematic motif. Current texts accentuate a fear of apocalyptic destruction spawned by a growing awareness of the role humans continue to play in the degradation of the natural world, coupled with a widespread sense of disempowerment. The bad guy is us, but it wasn’t meant to be that way.
“Super Discount plays with the idea that in 2013, we are the baddies and need to be saved from ourselves. Increasingly, superhero stories start the day after the battle, with a defeated hero wondering what to do now,” muses Gladwin.
In a traditional comic or film, the audience knows that nice (yet still masculine and warrior-like) guys eventually trump villains every time. The difference within the play is that the usual hero character has been replaced by an actor who is intellectually disabled. By subverting pre-existing notions of what it means to be a hero, Super Discount challenges it’s audience with the potential for strength that lies within the undeniably earthly beings set before them on stage.
This confronting rawness recurs in the performance’s aesthetic departure from the grandiosity of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, in favour of a stripped back, basic visual framework. In part a response to the implicit difficulties of creating the fantasy and spectacle of a superhero story in an incredibly honest live theatre environment, the simplicity of the set is also testament to a commitment to emotional honesty.
“The idea of presenting the ensemble without any framework or mechanism was terrifying for me,” says Gladwin. “I understood that fear to be more about my own anxieties than the actor’s capacities, so Super Discount is in part an attempt to confront that head on and see what the palette looks like totally pared back”.
Continuing on the vein of transparency, the unassuming director emphasises his desire that Super Discount be judged primarily on its intellectual rigour and entertainment appeal, without denying that the company is, at least in part, defined by the perceived disabilities of the actors.
“We’re not a community arts project or a benevolent action by a group of social justice campaigners. We aim to be known primarily for a body of work, rather than a political statement,” he says.
Although we might think we need a hero, in the case of Super Discount perhaps the real victory is in getting on with the show, which just as Gladwin hopes, doesn’t need to be spoken for.
Super Discount runs at the Malthouse Theatre until December 1.