Multiple Bad Things

MBT-Scott-Price-Sarah-Mainwaring-Bron-Batten-photo-by-Jeff-BusbyA pile of tubular metal, spray-painted gold, lies in the centre of the stage. Partly assembled or partly disassembled, it’s hard to tell.

Grey clouds hang in the background. Ominous.

A man (Simon Laherty) walks in, stretches and walks to the desk that sits to one side. He welcomes us with a kind of content warning that is both helpful and frustrating. “Theatre isn’t real,” he says, suggesting that we shouldn’t worry about what might trigger us.

A trio of construction workers enter. One of them is a man (Scott Price) and he takes a seat on a giant inflatable flamingo, watching his colleagues (Sarah Mainwaring, Bron Batten) start to make sense of the metal tubing. There’s some banter that you might expect from tradies on a work site, some gentle ribbing that turns into harsher language when one person goes too far. And another one bites back.

It’s tense, but we’ve already been told not to worry. It’s only theatre.

Back to Back Theatre is one of the most successful, most celebrated theatre companies in Australia. They won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for a Lifetime Achievement in Theatre this year. Two years ago, they won the Ibsen award, described as the Nobel Prize for stage. World-class achievements by a company formed in Geelong nearly thirty years ago.

In previous works, like Ganesh Versus the Third Reich and Lady Eats Apple, the company has found a way to turn intimate conversations into commentary on larger themes and difficult subject matter.

Multiple Bad Things drops us in a time and place where everything is happening a lot and much of it is bad. The program describes it as the “end of the world” but given the state of global politics right now, with many terrible things happening every day, it feels very current. And with much of the play revolving around language and how we can use it to hurt and harm (sometimes unintentionally), the commentary feels vital.

But the end result is ambiguous. The Back to Back ensemble is filled with disabled actors (joined by Bron Batten, here playing a proudly non-disabled “adult human female” – she’s very particular about this description) and we can feel how undermined they all are by a world not built for them. Especially in the company of someone who doesn’t have their lived experience.

Watching the actors struggle with the structure in the middle of the stage grounds us firmly in their reality, but what of the fact they are all capable of hurting each other with words?

Late in the show, Sarah Mainwaring’s character says we only celebrate the death of someone when they’ve done “multiple bad things” but in this play, we see Simon Laherty’s comfortable, solitaire-playing boss watch over his workers without a hint of real care. Batten undermines and gaslights. Price yells some awful invective in Batten’s direction.

Setting the work in a factory or on a building site feels both revolutionary (how well are these places designed for disabled people to work at or even visit?) and also too much like a cliché; of course, it’s these working-class people we’d expect to use harsh language and one-upmanship over the people they work with every day.

Anna Cordingley’s set is arresting and that construction does eventually grow to become a striking, if skeletal edifice. The projection of dark clouds hints at a storm brewing that feels sinister, Zoe Barry’s sound design is evocative and Richard Vabre’s lighting is suitable moody.

In the end, because I have been so profoundly engaged and moved by Back to Back’s previous works, this one felt terribly slight. The show wants us to understand that things are complicated, but it feels too much like a litany of troubles recited than a real investigation into the violence of language and disrespect.

Multiple Bad Things is tackling important current conversations, but I am not sure what Back to Back wants to say about any of it.

Multiple Bad Things
Merlyn Theatre – Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Performance: Wednesday 29 May 2024
Season continues to 9 June 2024

For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Scott Price, Sarah Mainwaring and Bron Batten in Multiple Bad Things – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Keith Gow