Juliette and Madeleine Hemphill are twins, born seventeen minutes apart on the 11th of September, 2001. They are twins, like Remus and Romulus, sons of the god of war and raised by wolves, who founded Rome and turned on each other. And so, they tell us, they have an eerie connection to two of the events that have defined Western history. But more than that, they are mirror twins, the result of minute cellular processes that define the evolution of our universe and present the dual possibility of either duplicity of chaos beyond our known universe.
I Saw the Second One Hit, directed by Clare Watson for St Martins Youth Arts Centre, is a sharp 45 minute piece of theatre that examines the experience of these two girls through the lens of these three identifying factors. It is a deeply unsettling piece that illustrates many of the most troubling aspects of the post-9/11 era.
I was nine when the World Trade towers fell. I remember waking to Mum sitting on the end of my bed, telling me that something terrible had happened, I remember the footage on every channel, and I remember in science class that day a few boys stacked measuring weights into two towers and took turns knocking them over while making plane sounds. But, unlike the Hemphill twins, I also remember a time before that.
Walking into the Tower Theatre at the Malthouse we are transported back to that time. Cheery radio announcers chat merrily about current events in the early morning of the 11th of September. The stage is bare, save for a single chair, and a curtain of silver tinsel that flutters at rear of the stage. A simple set up, but one that complements the complex content and intricacy of the lighting and sound design (by Richard Vabre and Russell Goldsmith respectively).
We are introduced to the Hemphill twins first as George W. Bush as they reenact the moment he was notified of the attacks, then as themselves. They are formidable performers considering their age, although perhaps a little nervous at first. They deliver their monologues with endearing charm but also with a stoic efficiency when necessary, as the story unfolds as a delicately crafted exploration of naivety and tragedy, of ignorance and war.
It is visually stunning production. The girls are calisthenics champions, and much of their time on stage is spent moving sharply, rhythmically, simultaneously, across the stage. It is beautiful and at times both moving and unsettling, particularly in the first half as they move through storms of paper, like those that fell from the towers after impact, and in the final moments as they wobble on tip-toe side by side, eyes closed.
The lighting is often highly theatrical, with blasts of bright colours, but with moments of stillness and subtlety. The projection of faint, barely visible yet instantly recognizable footage of 9/11 was hugely effective: reminding us just how familiar we had become with those images.
The sound design is almost a character itself, representing the dominant discourse of the past fourteen years. It is complex and gripping, particularly the short, quick-fire soundbites of the names and phrases that have come to define the naughties: 9/11, Saddam Hussein, and the Texan drawl of ‘Terr-ists’. At times, though, I thought the pace lagged a little, the sound bites were too familiar, too repetitious. These are events I am very familiar with, and I wanted to learn more about the girls’ experiences, to spend more time seeing the tragedy through their eyes rather than the broadcasters and politicians of the time.
But the moments that did focus on the girls were certainly the most striking. Particularly the realization that although they never knew a world before 9/11, they actually didn’t learn about it until they, too, were about nine. But, unknowingly, the culture they were growing in, growing from, was one scarred by the event. We hear the girls speak about their fear of terrorists, of the frightening ‘reality’ of the Sydney Siege. At that point we begin to see that they are not the products of an age of terror, but the age of a war on terror.
This was a hugely satisfying revelation in the final few scenes of the piece. While I had felt, up to that point, that the play was a little too slow-moving over familiar territory, the mention of the fraudulent nature of the war in Iraq and the effect of fear-mongering governments and media on these two girls, signaled exciting new territory. Watson traverses this territory with great ease and sublime poetry. The final monologue (and surprisingly moving club routine) is immensely powerful: intertwining voices tell of the construction and destruction of great Western Empires, founded with un-climbable walls and unwinnable wars, and the hope of duplication jostling with the despair of chaos.
While I think I Saw the Second One Hit is more of a statement piece than a play, it is certainly a statement that deserves to be on stage. Those children that we have always been told to think of –when going to war, when enacting new terror laws, when patrolling our borders – they are growing up. And just as children of the atomic age carry radiation in their blood, these kids wear the invisible scars of a world at war with terror. Watson and her team have created an excellent platform for those scars to be shared and seen and understood.