Saturday, January 26, 2019


Man with the Iron Neck by Ursula Yovich, based on an original work by Josh Bond.  Legs on the Wall, in Sydney Festival at Sydney Opera House, Drama Theatre, January 23-26, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 24

Photos by Victor Frankowski

Tibian Wyles, Kyle Shilling, Caleena Sansbury
as Ash, Bear and Evelyn

in Man with the Iron Neck
Legs on the Wall

Co-Director and Original Concept – Josh Bond; Co-Director – Gavin Robins;
Writer – Ursula Yovich;
Co-Composers – Iain Grandage and Steve Francis; Set Design – Joey Ruigrok;
AV Design – Sam James; Lighting Design – Matt Marshall; Costume Design – Emma Vine; Sound Design – Michael Toisuta and Jed Silver; Dramaturg – Steve Rodgers.

Ursula Yovich – Mum Rose
Kyle Shilling – Bear
Tibian Wyles – Ash
Caleena Sansbury – Evelyn

Kyle Shilling
in Man with the Iron Neck

Ursula Yovich, Tibian Wyles, Kyle Shilling
in Man with the Iron Neck

The purpose for creating Man with the Iron Neck is clear and important.  Why do people commit suicide?  Why young people?  Why young Indigenous people in particular?  Why this particular Indigenous young man, nicknamed Bear by his twin sister Evelyn?

Before the story telling began – by Evelyn’s boyfriend, aspiring actor Ash – the welcome to Gadigal land, on which the Sydney Opera House stands, included a minute’s silence in which the audience stood in memory of the nine Australian Indigenous girls, aged 15, 14 and 12, who have taken their own lives just since the beginning of this year – that is in the first 24 days. 

Bear’s fictional story represents all that tragic truth.

Ash begins with his story of The Man with the Iron Neck, which you can find at . Posted on Thursday, February 1st, 2018 by John Wood: “Aloys Peters was a German acrobat who developed an unusual skill — he could jump off a platform 75 feet in the air with a hangman’s noose around his neck and yet not hang himself. He had figured out the knack where he could maneuver his body mid-air and “tame the arc” taking the jolt out of gravity’s cruel grasp. Peters performed this feat initially for the famous Strassburger Circus in Berlin and then the Sells-Floto Circus on US shores in the early 1930’s.”

From this image, Legs on the Wall – a company famous for aerial dance – turn Rose’s teenage children into literally flights of fantasy, firstly swinging on the rotating Hills Hoist clothesline, which itself takes off in a dangerous entanglement, and jumping from the high limbs of a giant eucalypt, culminating in the hanging – when Ash, Evelyn and Rose herself cannot lift Bear’s body to save his broken neck.

Kyle Shilling as Bear
in Man with the Iron Neck

Caleena Sansbury and Tibian Wyles
as Evelyn and Ash
in Man with the Iron Neck

Ursula Yovich as Mum Rose
in Man with the Iron Neck

But it is not the physicality, the mental visualisations or the emotional anguish of Bear’s sister, his friend, nor even of his mother, which ask the key question.  Why did he do it?

The answer is shame.  Bear rarely spoke.  He was a young man of action, an AFL footballer who had won his first professional placing – only to have a racist call him a ‘monkey’.  This had happened in reality to Adam Goodes: [ ].  Bear was ashamed because he could not restrain his feelings, punching in response, sending his attacker to hospital with a broken nose.  Should he have walked away, maintaining his dignity?

But suicide…?  Not only because he had broken the code of responsible behaviour the football team expected, but because he – and we – realise that racism is the lot of Indigenous people daily throughout their lives.  This is what makes life not worth living.

So, the story is powerful and needs to be told.  Does the theatrical presentation stand up?  Not so well, in my view.

The dialogue, the choreography and the imagery tell the story too literally.  Legs on the Wall in previous work has moved and created images more poetically, making our imaginations work to seek out their meaning. 

In the scriptwriting, when Mum Rose expresses her feelings in a soliloquy, and when Ash makes his final observations about Bear and Evelyn, we are drawn in to identifying and deeply empathising with them.  Ursula Yovich especially stood out in her performance at this level.  But the characters of the young people, aged 16, needed much more development, with less obvious words and actions.  We needed to know from the beginning there were complex unexplainable feelings in the family and friendship relationships.  For this, though the words spoken might seem ordinary, the implications in the spaces between words must raise questions in our minds about what Mum Rose, Evelyn, Ash and Bear are really thinking and feeling about each other and themselves.

Then, with poetry in the aerial motion, Man with the Iron Neck could become the greater theatre experience which the importance of its theme deserves.


Following this short season at the Sydney Festival,
Man with the Iron Neck  will  be at the Adelaide Festival
Fri 8 March – Mon 11 March, 2019
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

while another Sydney Festival show, Counting and Cracking, reviewed here Sunday January 20,  will be on March 2 – March 9, 2019, at the Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showgrounds, Goodwood Road, Wayville, Adelaide.  Tickets & Info: