Theatre review: Bite the Hand

Who is more humane: the animal or the human?

Bite the Hand, by Perth-based theatre collective, The Last Great Hunt, is a rollicking play with a deceptively simple premise: what happens when beloved domesticated dogs are given the capacity to communicate with their owners, using the patterns of thought and speech of human beings? 

Sam and Dale love their dog, Alice. Sam’s brother, Wes, assists with transforming Alice into a dog with human consciousness, and uses his own dog, Rex, as the model for training dogs who can speak. Audiences happily respond to the delightful notion that dogs retain their canine qualities when given the gift of human language; joyous responses a recognition that we really do know what our dogs are saying as they dash about, wag their tails, bark, leap, and frolic in search of affection and attention. But do we, really?

The play’s themes are subtly evinced from the moment audience members take their seats. Bright music plays in a loop as an automated circular vacuum cleaner trundles across the carpeted floor of a nondescript room, bumping into boxed seats, and changing direction without hesitation. A small white picket fence loops the set, creating a shared yard between the open room and audience. Central to the set is a large square framed image of a black Rorschach inkblot on backlit white; a psychological test presented as hung artwork in a domestic space. A person walks onto the set, calling to the vacuum cleaner as though calling to a small pet dog.

As the play unfolds, the inkblot images within the frame change, heralding a shift in consciousness, desire, and motives for behaviour. A series of black, grey, then coloured Rorschach inkblots are exchanged for images of the moon as dogs meet at night, or the sign of dog in a park, as the owners take their dogs for walks. The final image explodes into an inky black denouement, before a poignant ending that reminds us that we too, like the dogs we love, are wild at heart.

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Playwright Chris Isaacs pays careful attention to words while director Matt Edgerton sensitively attends to text peppered with pithy insight and observations on the nature of relationship, power, and emancipation. Alice begins to question why she must do what her owner says, beginning by asking Dale why she must wear her leash, given that she is ‘a good girl; a good dog’. The proposition of the ‘smart dog’ usurping the family hierarchy in search for freedom raises the uncomfortable question of whose behaviour is more humane: the animal or the human? 

As a pack of talking dogs meet by the light of a Rorschach moon, they dig into such philosophical questions as what is love, who is family, and how you choose your pack. The alpha male, Reg, declares ‘no dog is free until all dogs are free’, postulating that with freedom you ‘become your own good boy’. Gnawing at memories of trauma and cruelty, the pack erupt into primal howling as such questions ultimately remain unanswerable.

The performers’ commitment to the play is evident in passionate delivery of lines, confident movement patterns on stage, and willingness to embrace quirks of character and the wildness of the animal within the human being. The versatile set and costume design by Bryan Woltjen is gently enhanced by Rhiannon Petersen’s lighting design, and appropriately complemented with sound and music by Pavan Kumar Hari. The play undulates with depth of writing which suggests multiple drafts and the generosity of collective members working together; allowing for the writing to develop and sparkle with moments of insight and thoughtful observation on the big ideas of emancipation, power, family dynamics, and what it means to be animal or human in an increasingly complex world.

The play’s a treat; take yourself and a best friend. As Isaacs reminds theatregoers, in his Writer’s Note, we are fortunate to be able to sit in a darkened space, on raked seating, sharing the experience of live theatre as a community.

Bite the Hand
The Last Great Hunt 
Writer: Chris Isaacs
Director: Matt Edgerton

Assistant Director: Ebony McGuire
Set & Costume Designer: Bryan Woltjen

Costumer Supervisor: Qi Cao
Lighting Designer: Rhiannon Petersen 

Lighting Mentor: Lucy Birkinshaw
Sound Designer & Composer: Pavan Kumar Hari 

Movement Director: Sam Chester 
Performers: Michael Abercromby, Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Arielle Gray, Amy Mathews, Alicia Osyka 
Production Manager: Roger Miller
Stage Manager: Sophia Morgan 

Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth, Western Australia 
Tickets: $18- $40

Bite the Hand runs from 12-23 October 2021

Lucinda Coleman is an Adjunct Lecturer (Research) and sessional Lecturer in Performance at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University.