Review: Black Hands Dead Section (Sydney University Dramatic Society)

sudsVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Aug 3 – 13, 2016
Playwright: Van Badham
Director: Zach Beavon-Collin
Cast: Adrien Stark, Alice Birbara, Amelia McNamara, Anna Rowe, Anna Williamson, Bianca Farmakis, Cameron Hutt, Charlie Meller, Elliott Falzon, Eloi Herlemann, Emma Throssell, Hal Fowkes, Hannah Craft, Helena Parker, Henry Hulme, Isabella Moore, Jimmy Pucci, John Kenedey, Joshua Powell, Julian Hollis, Laura McInnes, Louisa Thurn, Maddie Houlbrook-Walk, Nick Jackman, Nell Cohen, Oliver Ayres, Patrick Sunderland, Victoria Boult, William Hendricks
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Group were a far-left militant group in the early 1970’s, that had orchestrated acts of terror, including bombings and assassinations, in its efforts to instigate social and political change. In Black Hands Dead Section, playwright Van Badham provides a history lesson on the gang, looking at past events through a contemporary lens, mindful that terrorism is the hottest of today’s issues. No society thinks of itself as aggressors; in Australia, terrorists are foreign and we are its innocent victims. The simple but dishonest dichotomy frees our conscience, so we can continue with life as we know it, without having to understand the complexities of how we are responsible for our own woes.

Characters in the play begin as perfectly reasonable Western middle-class individuals, passionate about what they believe to be right, and although sometimes radical with their ideas, these personalities are familiar ones that we relate to readily. We want the same things of life, and our world views coincide. Gradually however, their actions become increasingly reprehensible, and we struggle to find the line at which us had become them. It is this ambiguity that is missing from public discourse about “religious extremists”. Dehumanising the enemy makes things convenient, but the lack of transparency and truth in how we talk about perceived threats, compounds our fears and prevents us from solving problems.

This student production features 29 enthusiastic actors, some more talented than others. The unevenness in ability certainly makes for challenging viewing, and although nuances and details are sorely lacking in their interpretations, they make their point loud and clear. Acts I and II feature an inordinately large number of characters and scene changes, which would test even the most accomplished directors and designers, so it comes as no surprise that this simple staging often leaves us confused with its every who, what, where and why. Thankfully, Act III turns uncomplicated and is more successfully rendered, eventually leading us to a cogent conclusion.

There are no easy answers in any war, because all life must be valued equally. If we believe that those in opposition must be annihilated, then no one is safe, and human nature is nothing but a perpetual death wish. We have to find the root of every evil before we can genuinely be rid of them, but this is not how we do politics (never have and probably never will), and when we look at the past, the truth is unquestionably full of doom and gloom. War has always been, but so has the longing for peace, and we cannot give up the desire for something better as it is that very desire that defines humanity. Characters in Black Hands Dead Section wishe for a better future, but it is their refusal to include every adversary in their vision of the ideal, that keeps them fettered.