Review | ‘Bite the Hand’ is razor-sharp comedy with deep meaning

Bite the Hand | Subiaco Arts Centre | Until 23 October | ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ 

An excited young boy rushes in with news of what’s been happening out in the garden. Rex tells his tale at breakneck speed, it makes no sense, a jumble of words tumble out of his mouth. He takes a deep breath and slows down, focusing on the event he wants to recall – he found his favourite stick.

It’s not a young hyperactive boy, it’s a dog who has been augmented to give him the power of human speech. Rex loves that throw and bring back game, and tummy scratches. He’s on a mission to be a ‘good boy’ but admits sometimes it’s really hard.

So begins Bite the Hand, a new work from The Last Great Hunt, written by local playwright Chris Isaacs. Jeffrey Jay Fowler excels at being man’s four legged best friend, and soon has the audience in fits of laughter.

Rex’s owner is Wes (Michael Abercromby), he works at a laboratory that is perfecting the new technology that allows dogs to gain the ability to speak and read. He’s managed to get his sister Sam (Alicia Osyka) and her partner Dale (Amy Mathews) onto the program too. Their dog Alice (Arielle Gray) is currently being transformed.

Having a dog that can chat, and really understand how you are feeling, is a life changer for Dale, who has struggled with mental health. Alice is a significantly smarter dog than Rex, and soon she is exceeding the expectations of everyone.

Alice is challenged though when she meets Reginald, a mysterious dog who has broken free of owners and domestication. He’s the leaders of a pack who chant that “no dog is free, until all dogs are free.” Alice begins to realise that there might be more she wants in life.

This is an incredibly funny play that will have you laughing out loud, and if you have a pet, you’re certainly going to look at them differently when you get home.

Under the direction of Matt Edgerton five incredibly talented performers, most of them playing multiple roles, deliver outstanding performances. Arielle Gray and Jeffrey Jay Fowler are so good at being dogs I had very clear ideas in my mind of exactly which breed each of them was.

There’s certainly a lot of theatre about animals of late, Black Swan State Theatre Company is currently performing Van Badham’s adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and it’s only a few months since feline focused Nocturna from Ian Sinclair was staged.

It could easily be explained that the animals in our lives are in the zeitgeist because of 2020 being the year that everyone spent more time with their pets that every before, but all of these works were written long before everyone in the world knew where Wuhan was located.

Chris Issacs’ text is though-provoking, and reminiscent of other tales of increased neurological abilities such as Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Oliver Sacks’ memoir Awakenings. It also taps in to often-told stories about creators and their creations, harking back to Frankenstein and his monster, except this time the monster is adorable.

Bite the Hand also prompts question about whether we can change our basic nature. Alice’s transformation is mirrored by her owner Dale, whose mental health improves, but can the improvement be maintained?

I was reminded of an outstanding presentation I saw many years ago from education expert Jason Clarke, who during his speech highlighted how his primary school reports accurately described him as an adult. After hearing his speech I dropped by my parents house and discovered in Grade-3 Miss Bailey had accurately described me as someone who talks too much and doesn’t like mathematics. A sentiment repeated by teachers for another nine years.

On a recent episode of the  long-running BBC program Desert Island DiscsEntrepreneur Tom Ilube spoke about how he has always seen himself as a sad person, not suffering depression but experiencing a constant feeling of sadness throughout out his life, but its not something he’d want to change.

“I don’t think I’d want to change it, it is generally a part of who I am.” explaining that sadness is a core part of who he is as a person.

As the sayings go, a leopard never changes its spots, and you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Bite the Hand left me thinking about how much we can change, how far can we move from the core being of who we are, and how we also sometimes have to accept, we are who we are, and other people will always be, who they are.

Tickets to Bite the Hand are on sale now

Graeme Watson, images: Christophe Canto.

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