Stage Door Review 2024

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes

Sunday, January 21, 2024


The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes

by Michael Chan et al., directed by Bruce Gladwin

Back to Back Theatre, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto

January 18-28, 2024

Scott: “We are all unique human beings”

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is the unnecessarily awkward title of an Australian play created by Back to Back Theatre.* It had its premiere in Sydney in 2019 and has toured ever since. Canadian Stage has now brought it to Toronto for 11 days. The play stars three neurodivergent actors, who along with the director Bruce Gladwin and three other authors, co-wrote the piece. The play offers an invaluable view of how neurodivergent people regard non-neurodivergent people and each other.

The premise of the play is that three neurodivergent actors – Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price – have called a town hall meeting in Gelong, Australia, at 5pm and we the audience are those attending. (Back to Back Theatre is based in Gelong.) As we discover quite late in the hour-long show, the point of the meeting is nothing less than to save the world. The actors, playing themselves, have an urgent message for non-neurodivergent people that just as we tend to belittle them as not “normal”, so Artificial Intelligence when it eventually takes over will regard us.

The action begins with Mainwaring and Price setting up chairs for the meeting and ends after the meeting with the two packing them up and carting them off. For reasons never mentioned the two divide the acting space from the audience with a long piece of yellow tape. This makes the division between us and them seem artificial – and, indeed, that may be the very point.

The meeting itself gets off to a rocky start when Mainwaring, the main speaker, freezes and forgets what she wants to say. Price and Laherty, who has entered by then, debate whether one of them should take over. In the course of their discussion, the three argue about whether the term “disabled” should be used to describe them or whether the newer term “neurodivergent”. According to the Harvard Medical School, “The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities”.

One point of contention is why those who run the meeting hall saw fit to install a transcription device that provides surtitles to everything the three say. Mainwaring feels it is degrading and paternalistic, put there under the assumption that people will not understand what they say. Price, who is autistic, defends the device since it merely puts into text what he says. He also thinks the device is necessary especially for him since, as he says, he suffers “the misfortune of having a strong Australian accent”. Scott also has pressure of speech which does make him the most difficult of the three to understand.

Gradually, however, toward the end of the show, the Siri-like reader of the surtitles (Belinda McClory, sounding like a female HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey), takes on a life of her own and begins to ask questions of the three performers. Mainwaring, in fact, had earlier referred to HAL in stating her warning to all people. As in Kubrick’s film human beings will be regarded a “disabled” and “dysfunctional” by Artificial Intelligence which will take itself, not us, as the model for what is “normal”.

What comes through most strongly in the show is not the message about the dangers of AI, but society’s pernicious use of the idea of “normal”. Mainwaring, who knows she speaks slowly and with difficulty because of a head injury, is also the one who makes the most trenchant and instructive comments about how those labelled as “disabled” have been treated throughout history – locked in basements, shut up in institutions, tied to beds. Her worst examples come from the infamous Magdalen Laundries in Ireland in the early 20th century. Initially, they were established by the Roman catholic Church in Ireland for “fallen women”. Over time they were used by families of ridding themselves of unwanted relations such as the mentally handicapped or any woman deemed to be socially dysfunctional. In the Laundries they underwent abuse of all kinds and received the final indignity of being buried in mass graves.

Mainwaring adds that the Nazis in their pursuit of eugenics sought to rid the world not just of Jewish people but also of the mentally and physically handicapped. But, as Mainwaring points out, the Laundries and the concentration camps are only extreme examples of how societies throughout history who have deemed themselves “normal” have dealt with those they deem to be abnormal.

The show, by allowing us to get to know three neurodivergent actors, brave enough to put themselves before the public as neurodivergent, accomplished far more that the premise of a “meeting” entails. The show allows us to see the three actors as individuals with differences of personality and differences of opinion, not as a part of an undifferentiated group of the “disabled”. The play itself demonstrates how incorrect the term “disabled’ is for people who display their very real abilities by performing in a play.

It is Scott, who declares, “We are all unique human beings” – a statement that we understand applies to everyone in the room. This is a play that, while nominally presenting one story, that of the meeting, actively works to point out and break down prejudice. Everyone should see it. And we should all be glad that Canadian Stage has brought it to us.

Christopher Hoile

*My only guess at what the title means is that “shadow” refers to AI, since AI is a reflection or shadow of the human intelligence that created it. “Hunter” would refer to human beings, whose first form of society was as hunter-gatherers. The play expresses the fear that human beings will become the “prey” of their own creation, i.e., the “shadow” of their intelligence or AI.

Photo: Scott Price, Sarah Mainwaring and Simon Laherty; Scott Price with surtitle above. © 2022 Kira Kynd.

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