As the theatre door opens and we are ushered across the space to the seating bank, it is satisfying to pass through the scattered patterns and piles of books that make up the set of After Hero. We are entering the world of words rooted in history, entrenched in society and challenged by writers Jessica Bellamy and Jean Tong. The space is intimate, the lighting soft, the cast of six performers motionless in a dark corner. With a beat of the drum After Hero begins, an hour of fluid, tight performance that transports us far and wide while urgently alluding to our present space and time.
Act One, written by Tong, is a dynamic, sensual dance. Wolfie Sun plays a hero, the hero, surrounded by an obligatory Greek chorus, espousing virtues and whipping the hero to seek out their life path. Yet these archetypes are not left alone by Tong, who challenges both forms with a sharply critical eye. Sun embodies a hero who not only defies gender normativity, but the very course of history that the chorus around them seeks to crystallise. What instead plays out is a tantalising reimagining of Greek mythology that is provocative yet humbling. No familiarity with such texts is necessary, for their contents are brought to life with incredible energy and creativity.
Daniel Lammin’s strong direction fuses with Tong’s deft and humorous writing to achieve this evocative imagining. Lammin’s accomplishment in diffusing the elaborate nature of the text into such a sublime progression would not be possible, of course, without the powerful cast of performers on stage. Each turn of the head, each glance at the audience, is committed with a confidence that enhances the pleasure gained by each twist and turn in the story, as all in the room are entranced by the myths unfolding.
Intermission over, we embark on the water bound journey of Act Two, Jessica Bellamy’s re-creation of a ship carrying Jewish refugees to the so-called New World. Where the first act followed one character as they transformed, so we now meet a plethora of individuals who are struggling to navigate the identities they were endowed with, and those they dream to express. This period piece quickly mutates as Bellamy reveals her own unique form of wit through the dramatic entrance of Barbara Streisand dressed as an appropriately glamorous cockroach. Olivia Staaf does Streisand justice in performance, and Bellamy in writing, and Barbara brings delight and wisdom to us all.
Time becomes critical to the problem of identity in Act Two, as the question of what future these Jewish refugees hold is transported to the continent on which we live, and the maxim under which our migration policy is dictated. Humour blurs to severity with humbling precision, and the lights flick an icy blue as the joy of the adventure is snatched away by those of our elected officials who claim to act in our name. Those entitled to act as our defenders, perhaps even our heroes. Caitlin Duff’s fluid lighting design builds progressively throughout After Hero, gaining and dropping in intensity along with the performers, but here it stands out as almost cancelling the show, on behalf of all who stand with refugees.
After taking us through mythology and across oceans, Act Three functions to return us so immediately home that the volatility of life right here in Melbourne becomes tangible in the space. The questions of life and death, success, aspiration, acknowledgement, survival, are laid bare for the audience to wade through. It is not a show with answers. The crisis of toxic masculinity is perhaps the single predicament Bellamy and Tong emphasise most, and it is here that we are left with the reminder that if we are to truly find a hero, the unthinking reproduction of a patriarchal, cis-heteronormative, white colonial history will take us nowhere.