Theatre review: AutoCannibal, Darwin Festival

Physical theatre meets the end of the world in this playfully abject one-man show.

Mitch Jones’ AutoCannibal opens with an image of the performer as The Hanged Man – one of the major arcana of the Tarot – suspended upside down by one foot, his other leg bent to create a triangle.

In the Tarot, the Hanged Man can represent many things: self-sacrifice, life in suspension, an act of prophecy (referencing the myth of Odin hanging himself on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, in order to gain the knowledge of rune magic) but also surrender – and, appropriately, given the traditional image’s historical origins – a visual reference to a shameful death.

In Jones’ hands, it’s no surprise that the Tarot evocation is quickly and playfully subverted, as the sudden appearance of a dangling saw begs the questions: will our Hanged Man amputate his own leg in order to free himself, or play the saw like a musical instrument, adding to the already eerie tone established in the show’s opening moments?

Jones’ character, we learn, is a former newsreader living in a post-apocalyptic world. Befitting the dual evocations of prophecy and shame represented by the Hanged Man, it’s tempting to read this man as someone who was trusted to report the facts regarding the damage wrought by climate change and unfettered capitalism but who failed to do so, and so has been punished for his sins by having to eke out a miserable existence amongst the ruins and refuse of the world.

Not that the world of AutoCannibal is one of justice duly and fairly served – instead, in Jones’ talented hands, it’s a gleefully grotesque exploration of abject comedy, and a quiet indictment of our collective complicity in climate change and environmental collapse.

The pace of AutoCannibal slows a little after its evocative start – an external dramaturg may have helped quicken its pace and bring its themes into sharper focus – but once it regains its momentum thanks to a gag-inducing blended meal, it’s a startling, confronting and darkly comic work. Jones skilfully subverts our expectations of his juggling skills at one point; elsewhere, his performance recalls childhood warnings concerning plastic bags as choking hazards while also demonstrating his creativity by taking the concept in an unexpectedly comic direction.

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A sequence in which Jones responds to orders from a computerised voice shifts from playful physical comedy to political commentary in the blink of an eye, while the sudden descent of knives and machetes from on high recalls Macbeth’s phantom dagger (once again referencing the guilt of the newsreader Jones is playing) but also the Sword of Damocles, often misrepresented as a symbol of impending doom but originally meant as a metaphor regarding the true nature of a life of luxury and power. Wordlessly, Jones seems to be saying that lives of luxury (including our own privileged Western lifestyles) are actually fraught and fearful: death is just a hairsbreadth away, unless we abandon capitalism and hyper-consumption and seek a new way of living.

If all that sounds bleak and overwhelming, never fear: there’s also slapstick, knife-throwing, and some truly striking and evocative imagery enriched by the compelling sound and lighting design. And did I mention there’s also a delightfully trashy sex scene?

Given its dark humour and deeper themes, AutoCannibal will not be to everyone’s taste, but for those on Jones’ wavelength, it’s a clever, confronting and subversive delight that is sure to prompt both reflection and conversation.

Creator/Performer: Mitch Jones
Director: Masha Terentieva
Lighting Designer: Paul Lim
Set Designer: Mitch Jones/Michael Baxter
Props: Al Oldfield
Sound Designer: Bonnie Knight
Produced by Oozing Future/Lauren Eisinger

Studio Theatre, Darwin Entertainment Centre as part of Darwin Festival
5-7 August 2022

The writer was hosted by Darwin Festival with support by Tourism Australia through the Regional Arts Tourism Package.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts