KIDS KILLING KIDS

In 2011, I saw a show in the North Melbourne Town Hall Warehouse called Room 328. It was directed by Daniel Santangeli, and it saw the audience being led into what felt like a frat party gotten way out of hand. We were invited to participate – given shots of tequila, urged to topple towers of cardboard boxes, to throw shit, to dance and to yell and to cheer on actors as they fought – really fought, really punched, really connected. The sickening shatter of flesh on flesh. The party grew wilder, the violence grew darker, the maelstrom whirled. And I was there, my heart in my mouth, running in dizzy circles, my hands the first to throw, my voice the loudest in the storm of heavy music. I went with a friend who I didn’t know very well, with whom I was still attempting to behave politely, but after ten minutes in that dark underworld, I forgot him, forgot myself, forgot anything except the fire in my chest. And when the show turned on a knifepoint, shifted delicately and subtly and devastatingly into heartbreak and quiet and loss, I appreciated it intellectually. But my body was still twitching to fight, to break, to scream. I came out of the theatre unable to keep my feet on the ground – I leapt around like a child, out of breath, wild-eyed. I saw a friend in the foyer – ‘Are you in love?’ she asked me. I felt drunk, drugged, I couldn’t stop talking, I couldn’t sit still. I ran for the tram and nearly threw up doing it. I felt raw, created anew, still mucky and birth-dazed.

Tonight, in the same space, I saw another show that did the same thing to me. Kids Killing Kids is a documentary, but this is no lecture theatre. It’s a deeply theatrical journey into the sick mix of horror, fear, nausea, and most disturbingly, pride, of realising that you have inadvertently opened the door to the heart of human darkness.

In 2011, David Finnigan, Georgie McAuley, Jordan Prosser and Sam Burns-Warr travelled to Manila to create a theatrical adaption of the novel ‘Battle Royale’, retitled Battalia Royale. The story was simple and brutal: a class of students is told that they have eight hours to literally fight for their lives – if there is one person left at the end of the game, they may live. If there are more than one, every single person dies. Game on. Go. The four worked with Filipino theatre ensemble Sipat Lawin, developed a script and left the country. By the time they returned to see their creation, the work had garnered rave reviews, rabid fan clubs and a veritable cult of teen fanatics, as well as global notoriety and howling damnation from academics and UN members. The show was accused of glorifying violence. And it was violent beyond comprehension. Characters fucked, stabbed, decapitated, electrocuted, exploded, poisoned, shot and garrotted each other for three roaring hours until one remained, leaving the performance area and many audience members washed in blood. The show was highly interactive – audiences literally ran from scene to scene, screaming, laughing and baying for the deaths of the performers. In one scene, a character called Timothy begged the crowd for his life, before his fate was decided by the cheers of the audience. He almost always died, and an audience member was the one to do it, shooting him in the back as he ran.

The show was both operatically epic and heartbreakingly intimate – characters would make breathless admissions of love, break up, make up, bully and chide as the petty crushes and hatreds of teenage life gained deadly significance.

As Kids Killing Kids progresses, the writers find themselves lost in the sudden transformation of what they initially perceived to be a pulp-pop, casually ‘cool’ 177 page script into a bloodbath of horror, made even more unsettling by its parallels with the violent civil war in the south of the country. As the third act of KKK raced on, as Sam intoned the names and manner of death of each character, as script and scene descriptions and photos and blood swept along in the current of the show’s climax, the audience caught snatches of Jordan’s response to the show – about how he whooped at the deaths because he couldn’t not, about how he marvelled at the chaos and the carnage, I could feel people around me shrinking. And I felt it in myself a little – I knew the context, knew that I should be abhorring the violence, knew that friends of mine had felt sick and harrowed watching these descriptions, seeing this footage – but I knew that if I had been in that audience, I wouldn’t have been one of the ones who walked away. I would have run until my lungs burst and screamed until I was hoarse and I would have jostled to pull the trigger that shot Timothy in the back. And I would have fucking loved it.

Which brings me to the pretty fucking huge question of ‘Why?’ I’m no delinquent. I’m a highly functioning, gainfully employed, privately educated individual who has never been in a fight that wasn’t overseen by a person with a whistle, who doesn’t get into yelling matches, who lives at the top of the pyramid of human needs. But as I heard these performers describe Battalia Royale, I felt this hot, quivering tension spread across my chest. As I left, I didn’t feel sick. I felt alive. I felt so incredibly fucking alive. I wanted to fight. I wanted to fuck. I wanted to scream. Above all, I wanted to be in that audience. The result was that from the very outset of the play, my reactions to its elements were inordinately heightened. I experienced a sort of slow-motion adrenaline high that sharpened all my senses. I felt like an animal. When the writers were describing a dance-battle between six year old street slum kids in a previous Sipat show, they played Lil John’s ‘Outta Your Mind.’ And as that song came on, I knew that there was going to be a bass break, and I knew that when it happened there would be a dance sequence, and I anticipated it with all the drunken sweaty dance-high reverence of a club devotee waiting for the drop in a dubstep track to drown their pissweak heartbeat, and in the second before the bass came, that precipice of song, it stretched out into infinity, like motorbike jumps in films, where as they hang in the air, the sound drifts into silence, into wind, into the nothingness before gravity takes it. I knew that first stomp was coming and when it did, I felt like a fucking prophet.

I remember being about eleven in high school, and learning about some atrocity – the Holocaust, probably – and sitting surrounded by prim young girls, italicising with their voices the phrases ‘I could never, ever kill another person. Absolutely not. Under no circumstances. Ever.’ And I sat there, drawn and quiet, nursing a secret as certain as the sky: I could. I knew that I could. Not just out of the blue. Not for no reason. But I knew that If I had grown up surrounded by the singing and banners and the certainty of hatred and the thousands and thousands of lifted hands, and if I didn’t have the fortune to be a middle class white Australian girl in 2003, then if you handed me a gun and gave me a snivelling, snotty person weeping at my feet, I’d shoot them. I was almost sure of it.

I don’t know whether that’s true. I can thank whoever it is that you thank that I will probably never have to find out. But I know that there is something in me that gravitates towards violence and catharsis. There is something in me that craves it. And I’m sure it’s not just me who feels it. This beast. This sick, scaled creature that tastes of metal and blood, that coils in our chests, dreaming, dormant. This horrific need for horror that we push down like bile, like sick, like the curling dark in the night. This nameless drive that we funnel into the pale rituals of sporting matches and the thumping bass of the nightclub. The Greeks knew it. They staged bacchanalian rituals of lust and fury, designed to drive the mind to its pinnacle and then plunge it off, into nothingness, into darkness, into blood. Today we drink ourselves to oblivion, fuck the pain away, but never with awe, never with a fierce blooming joy.

I could say that every person has this beast in them, but I’m not sure that it’s true. Several people I know who saw Kids Killing Kids expressed disgust at the audience reaction to the show. The graphic death scenes shocked them. I’m sure that they would be revolted to hear that I wanted desperately to have seen Battalia.

I wonder whether my wishing that I had been there, to become unconscious with ferocity, is moored in the fact that it’s not real. The idea of a battlefield terrifies and revolts me. But the idea of theatre creating ‘a safe space for the rage’, as one of the Filipino cast members put it, seems to me to be the perfect opportunity for us to act in a way that our calm cultured lives never allow. To be base and cruel and to scream – as babies we are born screaming; it is the tyranny of adulthood that we lose the permission to bawl – while knowing that there are rules, that lives are not really snuffed out – perhaps this is something essential and important. I went to Planetshakers once (the Melbourne Hillsong) and watched hundreds of people keen, speak in tongues, moan, cry, rock to the swelling music, because they had a safe space to do so. Because they were allowed. At least in theatre, we’re not thanking a holy spirit for the privilege; we applaud the actors. Works like Battalia Royale are important because they remind us of our primitive selves, allow us to dissolve the bullshit that our brains play us every day and just be. Be nerves. Be adrenaline. Be out of control. And then go home, have a shower, kiss our lovers and sleep it off. The complexities come, of course, when the actors can’t do the same. When the hundreds of people demanding that you die start to get to you. Kids Killing Kids digs into the heart of theatre, of art itself – to what lengths are we willing to go? There are no clear answers in the show because there are none outside it.

So I go to bed feeling shaken. Because I know that I would have loved Battalia Royale for the opportunity to lose myself in base existence for three hours. The frightening line for me lies in wondering whether I would have loved it because I knew that it wasn’t real, or because I wished that it was.

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S x

All photos are mine.

One Response to KIDS KILLING KIDS

  1. Schoolforbirds says:

    I’m a bit late (and I’m so sorry) but this is just as beautiful as I knew it would be. You write about this so much better than I did because I neurotically held myself at arm’s length from it. I love the sentence “as babies we are born screaming; it is the tyranny of adulthood that we lose the permission to bawl”. I want the second half of that on a t-shirt.

    I wrote this about Columbine not long before seeing KKK:

    ‘A female actor, amid a chaos of flashing lights and overlapping dialogues solemnly intoned a list of the victims into a microphone: ‘Rachel Scott, aged seventeen, killed by shots to the head, chest, arm and leg at the west entrance to the library. Richard Castaldo, aged seventeen, shot in the arm, chest and abdomen at the west entrance to the library’ and so on and on through thirty-six names. As she spoke I was overwhelmed by pity for her as an actor and, as she neared the end of her horrific list, I could not shake the knowledge that she had those names and deaths and pains and tragedies memorised. They were in her head, somewhere behind her eyes embedded in neurons. Seldom have I been so profoundly grateful for not being an actor and this personal response shocked me almost as much as her words. And good. I was glad to be shocked. It should be shocking. To hear a record of violence committed by children against children spoken by young people so earnest, so impassioned, so committed to telling this tale was shocking and beautiful and, whatever the productions problems, incredibly important.’

    I was in absolute shock when Sam intoned those fictional names and deaths. These two shows were suddenly superimposed upon each other and I was deeply disturbed.

    You know I struggled with the violence but we both know that I am secretly (or not so secretly) ridiculously uptight. And it is taught. Thanks to the lack of TV in my childhood, I’ve seen so little violence, suspense or gore. My mother is even more sensitive: a while back I made her watch ‘The Boat That Rocked’ with me and she got too scared and I had to pause the film and tell her that no one was going to drown. Rather extreme. But even I could feel everything that you talk about, bubbling away under many, many layers of pompous self-assurance that I felt nothing but shock. This is a beautifully truthful response and your truth helps me tap into my own: the violence that I have compressed and fitted inside my smallest toe to be ignored and forgotten.

    x

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