‘The end game is this work becomes irrelevant’: play tackles Indigenous youth suicide with acrobatics

The Guardian, 22 January 2019

The Man with the Iron Neck examines Indigenous suicide with sensitivity, warmth and a dose of hyperreal.

After losing a young family member to suicide, Josh Bond found himself in the midst of an existential and emotional crisis. Grappling with the unanswerable, he became fascinated with the famous 1920s German acrobat The Great Peters: a stuntman whose signature trick was surviving leaps from a 23 metre platform with a hangman’s noose around his neck.

It’s this preoccupation with defying death that underlies The Man With the Iron Neck, an aerial theatre show. Co-directed by Bond and Gavin Robins in collaboration with NSW physical theatre company Legs on The Wall, it’s one of the hottest tickets at this year’s Sydney festival.

Through the story of an Aboriginal family living in semi-rural Australia, the narrative explores the universal themes of love, loss and the devastation of suicide. Twins Bear and Evelyn are not long out of high school and are living with their mum, Rose, dreaming of life beyond their small town. The close-knit family shares laughter and an easy affection but is still living with the loss of Rose’s husband, the twins’ father, who took his own life years earlier. Then another suicide hits the family, and the trauma resurfaces.

The Man with the Iron Neck invites the audience to reflect on what is worth living for when faced with pain and trauma, both personal and inherited. The work was met with critical acclaim when it premiered at Brisbane festival last year, and its themes have only become more urgent: in the first weeks of 2019, five Aboriginal girls under the age of 15 took their own lives, with a sixth taken to hospital after a suspected suicide attempt.

Bond says the piece of physical theatre has been a labour of love for the creative team and cast, the majority of whom are Indigenous and have themselves been affected by the suicide epidemic that is Australia’s great ongoing tragedy. “I really believe it is each of our own experiences which has driven the passion to tell this story, to spread awareness and to find healing for ourselves, as much as for our audience.”

Brilliant writing by Ursula Yovich, who in a heartbreakingly affecting turn also plays the role of Rose, has been deftly guided by dramaturg Steve Rogers. The result is an emotional yet humorous and touching immersion in to the heart of family life and the choices we make in life and love.

Tibian Wyles in The Man with the Iron Neck. Photograph: Brett Boardman

“It was a great learning experience writing this piece,” says Yovich. “It made me realise how important words are. I had to be unafraid of cutting scenes or dialogue that didn’t propel the story forward. This was difficult sometimes because we’d get attached to the story or the joke or how something looked visually.”