Games in the Backyard

Games in the Backyard
By Edna Mazya. ATYP Studio 1 (NSW). November 17 – December 3, 2011.

Chains, a bare floor and dark shadows set the stark scene for this gut wrenching drama by Israeli playwright Edna Mazya. As the lights come up, lawyers stand still, fixing the audience, their initial interrogation establishing immediate tension. The lights go down; the characters transform; the music changes; a swing falls; and we are taken from a court room to a playground on a kibbutz where a fourteen year old girl is beguiled, teased, taunted and eventually raped by a group of teenage boys.

The play, based on the 1988 case of a gang rape and a trial that shook Israel, is gripping. The pace, the emotion, the depth of the characters and the truth of the acting grab you and don’t let you go, even when the play is over. Not since Nick Enright’s Blackrock  or Jane Harrison’s Stolen have I felt so physically winded by a production.

Each of the actors plays a double role. The four boys, transform as four male prosecuting counsels; the naively provocative teenage girl, Dvori Machnes, becomes her own defence counsel. And though it makes some scene changes a little long – and the heavy metal music behind them a little too visceral - as the trial proceeds, the importance of the doubling becomes subtly evident. The counsels’ costumes – suit coats cunningly sewn into academic gowns – show designer Lisa Mimmocchi’s awareness of the need for pace to be maintained.

Jessica Palyga is strikingly believable in both her roles. As Dvori she is awkwardly realistic. The loud, look-at-me fourteen year olds you often see – or more likely hear! – in groups outside the movies! Aware of her beginning sexuality, she preens to the interest of the boys around her, anxious to impress – but too young and immature to realise the effect this might have or the true motive behind their interest.

As the prosecuting counsel she is almost the opposite. Elegant, wise, controlled, piercingly perceptive.  

Each of the male actors makes a similar transformation. As Shmulik Kooper, Carl Batchelor plays the reticent gang member. He creates a less self assured, more empathetic character, a victim to asthmatic attacks when provoked by both Dvori and his friends. Yet he is still caught in the eventual spiral of the provocation, losing any audience sympathy he might have gained.

Joseph Del Re is strongly muscular a Sela Borochov. His cut and thrust with the boys and Dvori is carefully sustained and controlled. In contrast, Michael Rebetzke as Gidi Betser is looser, more fluid, weaving rather than stalking, wooing as much as taunting..

Dorje Swallow, as their leader, Asaf Sacharov, is scarily real. He skilfully and deliberately  tempts Dvori – and his friends – into a vicious, sexual snare from which none but he can escape.

In the courtroom scenes, even as each transforms from sensual adolescent to cold, calculating lawyer, in their harrowing cross examination of a much subdued Dvori, there remain vestiges of the boys in the men.

This is a very tight production – apart from the actual rape scene which could well have been omitted. The intent was clear and palpable without the rather clumsy simulations. The pace, and the tension, accentuated by sound designer Guy Vincent Fenech’s choice of almost intimidatingly loud metal music and Sara Swerky’s shadowy, suggestive lighting, are swiftly established and breathtakingly sustained by director Netta Yaschi. In her hands this cast brings the horror that shook Israel in 1988 to life.

Carol Wimmer

Photographer: Lisa Mimmocchi

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