Headlock Review 30/05/06

Headlock
Malthouse Theatre & Kage Physical Theatre.
Malthouse, Melbourne, until 3rd June.

You know what they say, a good show is a short show, and at only 60 minutes running time, Headlock doesn’t disappoint.

Physical Theatre. So what is it?

Wikipedia notes some confusion in the use of this term across the world today, in that

… it is often difficult to draw a distinct boundary between what is and what is not physical theatre.

vtheatre.net defines Physical Theatre as

the craft of building theatre through physical actions, characterization and stage composition. Physical Theatre uses as its primary means of expression movement, dynamic immobility, gesture and a variety of acting techniques. Text, music, costumes, and scenery are included in layers selectively. The context in which all of these elements are blended is determined by the message the performers wish to communicate.


Headlock is the story of the Ryan brothers, Matthew, Shane and Dean. Matthew is alive, but deaf. Shane is also alive, but speaks very little. Dean is in many scenes with his two brothers, but he is now dead.

This wonderful exploration of what it means to be male includes a confronting narrative of Shane’s first 24 hours in prison and a number of flashback scenes of happy childhood days, when the three brothers appeared virtually inseparable. But the good times are now only a memory.

The story is told through movement, physical images and the playful art of wrestling your brother in a headlock. The theatre set is a boxing ring, complete with ropes and bowling green light above. The spoken text in this play is few and far between. The cast are trained dancers telling a story through movement. Who said dancers couldn’t act? Their characters are arguably more believable through action than through word and it was impossible not to empathise with all three of them throughout the drama. The scene towards the end where Dean and Matthew take it in turns to embrace their imprisoned brother, slowly writhing across the floor, swaying him gently back and forth in their arms, is one of the play’s most tender and poignant moments.

So you’d think a Physical Theatre show would be light on the stagecraft, yeah? On the contrary, the lighting and sound in particular, were nothing short of spectacular. The soundscape covered everything from noise effects, to hard rock and electronic ambience. It created a highly evocative atmosphere that blended with and supplemented the stage action perfectly. The lighting included beams of white light in an eerie darkness and blue flourescent tubes high above the ring. Both worked in harmony and also in stark contrast to each other throughout the show. Either way, one thing was clear – every lighting state and sound cue was deliberate, calculated and perfected for maximum effect.

The subject matter of Headlock is brutal. Is there anything remotely pleasant about the incarceration of another human being? Shane’s imprisonment is made bearable only by the positive memories of his recently deceased brother. The flashbacks to happier times are performed seamlessly by the cast with little jolt in the performance, as the boxing ring becomes the scene for play time in their youth at a variety of locations. The strong acting, slick direction and clever use of stagecraft enabled smooth transitions in time and place. The audience had little problem using their imagination to believe what they saw, as the ring was transformed time and time again.

I’m a relative newcomer to Physical Theatre and have never really been a fan of this form. Until now….

Headlock is a winner. Rush to see it before it finishes if you can.

Related links:
Interview With Director Kate Denborough The Age 22/05/06

Review The Age 22/05/06

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