It’s the morning after the Lindt Café siege, and the birds are still singing.
Not really – in Angel Place there lies a plaque that pays homage to the forgotten songs of birds that inhabited the CBD before colonisation. Birdcages loom above, and bird calls play from speakers hidden among the canopy. It’s here that Human Activity opens: a woman reads the plaque, listens to the birdsong, among the quiet and calm of a city interrupted.
Arti (Trishala Sharma) is swiftly told off by Jana (Katherine Shearer), a homeless woman who was moved on in the commotion of the night before and who took her in. It’s here that one of the central conflicts of the play is established: Arti’s bag has been stolen, and with it her money. It is later revealed subtly that this money is for an abortion, one that her husband cannot know about – because if she has the baby, “he has everything”.
The play winds its way through multiple storylines: there’s Arti and her odyssey to find her bag, Jana attempting to find her items after she was moved on. An elderly couple take a detour from their yearly trip “starting in the East and working towards the West” to pay their respects at Martin Place. A security guard attempts to help the couple, but ends up losing their suitcase. A florist sells flowers to passersby, haranguing the line of people paying respects for $10 bouquets.
Despite the central conceit revolving around the Lindt Café siege, it quickly became apparent that this was a play about domestic violence. It is revealed that Jana became homeless after fleeing an abusive household, leaving her children behind. Arti’s husband checks her phone, tracks her every move and rages whenever she leaves. The elderly couple lost their daughter to suicide after she suffered abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. A woman selling bottles of water and cans of drink, played by SUDS’ own Madhullikaa Singh, revealed that she used to work in an office, but after refusing to “dress pretty” for her boss and being sexually assaulted, she becomes her own boss.
One of the most powerful scenes in the play is a duologue between Jana and Arti. Arti is in pain, a danger to herself, and Jana embraces her to force her to stop. They crouch together on stage as Jana attempts to talk her down. Throughout the scene, though, as Jana gauges the extent of violence Arti faces and still plans to return to, Jana retaliates and tells Arti not to return. It’s from this standing position that Jana asserts that they aren’t so different, and that under abusive conditions, “you get smaller and smaller until you can fit your whole life in a plastic bag”.
Angel Place was an apt setting for the play: birds are, after all, the silent observers of the city. This was complemented by monologues from a cockatoo, the graceful movement and inquisitive head tilts masterfully portrayed by Karina Bracken. After the loud chaos of everyday city life and the jarring gunshots of the police, the softness and silence highlighted the displacement of the day after.
Lighting (designed by Benjamin Brockman) complimented the scenery (designed by Soham Apte) well: the birdcages illuminated through scene changes, ensuring we never lost the sense of emptiness and loss that followed the siege. Additionally, the stark whiteness that splattered the walls emphasised the morning light that dappled the play.
The tragedy of the play was counterbalanced beautifully by the comedy: playwright Katie Pollock and director Suzanne Miller established this well. Movement scenes were incorporated, waves of people swaying together to emulate the rush of people at Martin Place the morning after. Vagueness was sometimes a weakness, and though they incorporated the main theme of domestic violence to mirror the circumstances that pushed the man to undertake a siege, this was not common knowledge.
One of the most visceral, gut-wrenching moments of the play was a scene depicting the final moments of the siege. Two police officers (played by Josephine Gazard and Mason Phoumirath) come onstage in bulletproof vests, whispering into their walkie-talkies as the mic projects their hushed voice to the small theatre. Everyone leans in as one complains about being hungry, about how they should have gotten hostages out immediately rather than waiting. Then one hushes the other, and the sound of a gunshot. They rush off stage to the sound of another, before a blackout drops and there is a volley of gunshots loudly projected in the small space. Audiences clenched their fists and blocked their ears as they took in “one, two, then a volley of gunshots”.
A friend commented that it was rare to see a cast with so many people of colour in a play that wasn’t overtly about race. In addition, one of the elderly actors performed with a script in hand after suffering a stroke before opening – an email from the company highlighted that they “believe [their] theatres are enriched when we support and welcome all actors, including the elderly and those with impaired abilities.” This was a special touch, and duologues between the couple took on a quality of hesitation that emulated two people lost in a world of senseless violence and cruelty.
Human Activity takes one of the darkest moments in Sydney’s recent history and creates something beautiful.
Human Activity will be performing at KXT on BROADWAY until September 30.