Photo by Clare Hawley
Black Hands/Dead Section is a play that reminded me of my worst sexual encounters – I was intensely uncomfortable for two-thirds of its duration, and cried at the end. I say this in the best possible way and with the utmost admiration because to recreate such disconcerting emotions is no simple feat, and Zach Beavon-Collin does so with the dexterity of a seasoned director and the unrestrained passion of student theatre – a fiery combination that makes for an incredibly intricate production that is uniquely thought-provoking.
This is not an “easy” play by any means. Set against the backdrop of the 60s and increasing international tensions regarding the Vietnam War, Black Hands details the rise and fall of German youth revolutionary movement, the Baader-Meinhof group. Badham’s script is not only dense in characters and seeped in complex historical context, but at its core is a dissection of the fine equilibrium between “revolution” and “terrorism”.
We are thrust, from Patrick Sunderland’s electrifying opening monologue, into an arena that is politically supercharged. The building tension between students and government is palpable, and the use of an ensemble cast envelopes us in a gang of misfit youths slighted by authority and desperate for social change. Over the course of three acts, however, we observe the devolvement of this group’s manifesto from one that is innocently peaceful to one that is militant, aggressive, and outwardly hateful.
Helena Parker shines in her role as Baader-Meinhof’s leading woman in a performance that is considered, tracking her character’s slow descent into violence and instability before reaching a state of ultimate vulnerability. So too do Cameron Hutt and Alice Birbara – as an impassioned young couple amidst a sea of paper on the stage – command our utmost attention in scenes that are almost too confronting to watch.
At various times throughout the play I found myself squirming restlessly in my seat at the horrors depicted: the killings and torture of blameless students, the rawness and absolute desperation displayed by the ensemble. The play’s conclusion brought with it no resolution, no catharsis as a response to the dilemmas it raised, and I left the theatre with an overwhelming sense of emptiness. And this is Black Hands’ clearest success – its capacity to transform a historical genre into a show that forces us to question our own ethics.
Where Badham’s script is lacking – an uneven rhythm in some parts, a tone that is perhaps too factual and objective, a running time that could easily have been trimmed – Black Hands’ production team makes up for in a multitude of ways. The technological intricacy of the show must be praised: the use of audiovisual clips designed by Tayla Penny and projected onto a back wall is innovative and a valuable guide to context (rather than being merely a gimmick); and Ryan Devlin’s sound design is seamless in transitions between Badham’s idiosyncratically short scenes.
These minute details are a testament to the marked dedication evident in Black Hands. It’s worth a viewing for these alone, if not for the vertigo-inducing discomfort it will instil within you. Find out more about the play here.