I thought Kids Killing Kids was astonishing; the friend I saw it with was astonished that I even applauded at the end. We’re not the only people experiencing such a chasm of differing opinion about this show that’s pushing buttons and forcing a discussion that extends way beyond the smugness of “is it good theatre?”.
This is the last show MKA founder Glyn Roberts is producing for the company – he’s off to Brisbane to be share his awesomeness – and he’s left us with a work that epitomises so much about why he and Tobias Manderson-Galvin founded MKA.
With an overhead projector, a slide carousel, milk crates and a laptop projector, it’s a theatre documentary. It’s not verbatim or polemic theatre, it’s four young Aussie writers (Sam Burns-Warr, David Finnigan, Georgie McAuley and Jordan Prosser) telling us their story of working in Manila with a community theatre company and inadvertently writing a cult play that has thousands of fans and very vocal critics, including the UN Subcommittee for the Victims of Torture and members of the cast.
It begins with an offering of dried mango and pictures of the four at high school in Canberra in the early 2000s. By 2011, they were in Melbourne and packed their backpacks to for month in Manila to work with the Sipat Lawin Ensemble.
The experience of being in a huge Asian city is always a jolt after the space, road rules and general niceness of even the biggest Australian cities. They settled into the routine of odd coffee, Spam for breakfast and hilarious t-shirts, but were still distanced tourists who didn’t think twice about taking KFC into a Buddhist monastery. For the sake of all things sacred, don’t eat that shit!
But they were there to make theatre and as they became friends with the company members, they argued art and culture into the night and wrote a script adaption of the pulp Japanese novel, Battalia Royale, which is about a class of school children who are forced to kill each other – kids killing kids. (And the internet tells me that the author of The Hunger Games claims to have never read it.)
They handed the script over and came home, thinking they’d never see Battalia Royale again and were much more excited about the experience of being in the Philipines.
But it was performed. The first night to 250 people, the second to 450, the third to 950 – already more than will be able to see this show during the Fringe. The fan response was extreme and thrilling for the playwrights, who experienced it through Facebook, emails and fan blogs filled with fan fiction and kids showing off the fake blood they got on their clothes when they saw it. Then the critical backlash began.
It’s now that this show starts creating the conversation that’s becoming so much bigger than the questions it asks.
Four young white privileged 20-somethings wrote a play about children killing each other, set in a country that they didn’t know very much about (hell, my first thought was Imelda and her shoes and I couldn’t remember when Marcos was disposed). When the criticism started – and a UN subcommittee claiming that you’ve done bad is very different from a grumpy critic saying they thought you could do better – they learnt a lot more about the country that has a history of violence, including the ongoing arming of children, that most tourists and visitors will never know about or care to find out about.
What I love the most about this work was that it is always these four people telling their story. The politics is complex and confronting, but they share enough for the audience to begin to understand the context, but not enough to overwhelm. Or to really understand it. They leave it up to the audience to decide if we want to go home and read more.
I was curious about the country that I have never been to, but I wanted to know what happened to these four. I wanted to know their story and hear their voices. After all, they are the people in the room with us and they had given us dried fruit.
As writers, they told it with a mixture of honesty and distance, created a structure and likely bent the truth to make the story better. Their story kept asking “and then what?” and they underscored it with a dilemma that has more questions than solutions.
Did they make a successful piece of art that should be celebrated or a piece of crap that continues to do harm?
They don’t answer this. And imply many more questions about violence, the western eye looking at the Philipines, their own skills, what the hell they were doing there in the first place, and whether they should have done or still do anything to address the criticism. Again, they don’t answer these questions, but the audience do.
It’s these answers that are making this one of the most talked about shows this festival. And this is the success of Kids Killing Kids. So many shows are forgotten by the time the first post-show drink is orders; this one is resulting in arguments and discussions and anger and elation. Any work that does this is damn good theatre.
My friend – who looked at me like all sense of morality had left me – thought it was bragging and boring and that they took no sense of responsibility for the sexualised violence that was being celebrated by the thousands of young fans. She thought they learnt nothing from the experience and that they should have taken responsibility rather than celebrated the experience and expected us to congratulate them.
I hope that they left all the questions so open so that we could have these discussions.
What is on the stage is their story and I was fascinated by it. Their ultimate reaction was to make another piece of theatre, and I’ll be there for the next version, when they tell us about what it was like to have their new work about their old work dissected by friends, peers and the audiences who love and support independent theatre.