Friday, 18 May 2018

The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini - Arts Centre Melbourne

The cast of The Bleeding Tree
Photo by Elesa Kurtz

A steep patterned uneven floor descends and ascends into the black void. No one is prepared for the deafening crack of a rifle shot that echoes through the farmhouse. A mother and her two daughters appear from the darkness; husband and father lying dead at their feet. A bullet through the neck.

Our three narrators loom above us, angry and defiant, shouting at the corpse of the man who abused them. They are glad to be free of him. But this story doesn’t feel triumphant; it’s steeped in fear and dread and a town closing in around them.

Mother and daughters must work together to get rid of the body and protect each other when other townsfolk show up, worried about the kind of man we so often hear described in the media as a “good bloke”. This small town feels complicit in the cycle of abuse that this gunshot has fixed for now.

Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree is darkly poetic in its language, crafting a fable of sorts. Its reaction and reflection on domestic abuse is visceral without feeling exploitative. The violence is off-stage and alluded to. This story is about how these women cope in the aftermath and we are witnesses to their stories and experiences; we are listening when, in reality, so many victims of domestic violence aren’t listened to.

The show, first produced at Griffin Theatre in Sydney, is intense from gunshot to fade out and I can only imagine how that would have been magnified in its original, intimate space.

Lee Lewis’ direction is sharp and clear and simple. The sloping stage (design by Renee Mulder) is effective in keeping the characters and the audience teetering on the edge; almost but not quite off-balance. The lighting design by Verity Hampton is precise; the characters are held in an oppressive cocoon of blackness and we are left to imagine the world pressing in around them.

Cerini’s text is lyrical and compelling and refuses to hold your hand; neither for the audience’s benefit or the actors themselves. The cast, led by Paula Arundell, is extraordinary. Arundell’s performance is a mix of coarse defiance as mother and masculine bravado as the men who come to the farm, looking for her husband – last seen stumbling out of the local pub.

Sophie Ross and Brenna Harding (new to this remount of the production) are incredibly good as the daughters, swinging wildly between being glad their father is dead, and worried for their wondering how they are going to get rid of the body.

There are moments of grotesque humour scattered throughout this lean, piercing seventy-five-minute play, allowing some relief to an audience that might have been looking for a way out of the story they were watching. I laughed less than most, overwhelmed by these women’s pain, emotionally gutted by their circumstance and enraptured by a show that edged close to perfection.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

BLISS by Tom Wright, based on the novel by Peter Carey - Malthouse

Toby Truslove & Anna Sampson in Bliss
Photo: Pia Johnson
Harry Joy is dead but not for long. He’s quickly revived into a new life, one that resembles Hell or an advertising company pitch meeting. Or maybe it was like that all along?

Based on Peter Carey’s debut novel from 1981, playwright Tom Wright and director Matthew Lutton have teamed up again – after Picnic at Hanging Rock – to adapt a classic Australian book to the Malthouse stage.

But where Picnic was sleek, sharp and focused, Bliss is leaden and long.

The early introductory scenes felt like Wright and Lutton were aiming for a poetic companion piece to their Gothic melodrama, with interlocking monologues picking apart the kind of Australia that is only reminisced about. Bliss is set in the 1980s, in the suburbs of Sydney. The costumes allude to the decade without being a parody of it. The local references evoke the era.

As Harry stumbles through this newly recognised Hellish existence, we’re treated to some wryly amusing meta-theatrical nonsense; he thinks his family are actors and he’s trapped on a revolving set. But embracing a Brechtian approach to Harry’s new life doesn’t gain the production much after a while. The trouble with Harry is – he and his family are hard to like. And their stories are mostly flat.

Which is a pity, because Lutton has assembled an exceptional cast to bring the Joy family and others to life. Toby Truslove brings a kind of dignity to Harry that is at odds with his wife Bettina’s wish that he had stayed dead. Amber McMahon is wild as Harry’s wife, injecting much energy each time she steals the spotlight.

Wright’s approach to the material seems to regard the original text with such reverence, for much of the three-hour running time it felt like the actors were reading the book to me, suggesting that I should have just read it.

There are moments of satire in this show but they are not sustained or built upon. I worried for Harry’s well-being for a while and then I stopped. I wanted something more for his family and then I found it difficult to care.

Late in the play, I was wondering how the rest of the audience was doing. I was concerned for them. I looked around, thinking about that regular criticism of critics – you hated it, but what did the rest of the audience think? I didn’t do a poll, but I did note that several people didn't return after interval and that for a supposed comedy, there was only a scattering of laughs the whole night.

I got some food stuck in my throat at dinner before I saw Bliss. Maybe I died and woke up, much like Harry Joy, in Hell. The only way for him to resolve his dilemma was to die again. At least I got to get up and leave the theatre.



The cast of Bliss
Photo: Pia Johnson