REVIEW: Wittenoom by Mary Anne Butler

“the dogs of the apocalypse lie at her feet, ears alert… waiting…”

Pearl and her mother Dot have moved to the mining town of Wittenoom in Western Australia, a town of mostly men who need shelter and looking after. They open up their front verandah as a room and they charge for food and board plus extra for mending things. Dot spends most nights at the pub, using the name Patsy, after Patsy Cline: a name she says sounds more glamorous than Dot – a mark on the landscape.

There is a strict hands-off policy for the men who board with Dot and Pearl, but Dot finds her own fun at the pub – spending just enough time with men to satisfy herself. Pearl has a tougher time of it, growing up without other kids around, having to make her own fun – but one of the highlights of her childhood is getting dressed up to go to the races, to see the men in their fancy suits and women hiding under fascinators.

It’s early on in the play, though not in the lives of the characters, that Dot is diagnosed with mesothelioma – the scourge of Wittenoom, a town that mined blue asbestos. She’s given three months to live and she refuses to accept that anyone can tell her when she is going to die.

Wittenoom, the real town, was established in 1950. It was named by mining magnate Lang Hancock, after his partner in a nearby sheep station, Frank Wittenoom. It’s no longer a town; the mine closed in 1966, though the town’s power grid remained switched on until 2006 and its final resident left only last year.

The declared-contaminated site was the inspiration for the song “Blue Sky Mine” by Midnight Oil but its story has faded into the past, though some thrillseekers still travel there as a kind of extreme tourism. Similar to those who visit Chernobyl for fun.

Wittenoom, the play, by Mary Anne Butler is exquisite in its poetry. The text sketches out the lay of the land, the vibrancy of the town and its fleshed-out centre is the vivid characterisations of Dot and Pearl. We skip around in time, joining the pair for their wide-eyed moments and slowly pulled into the darkness that surrounds them.

Set Designer Dann Barber gives us a Welcome to Wittenoom sign that’s broken; the words faded and tiles of the billboard missing. Dust is spread across it and piled under it. The sign dominates the space and stands over the actors, who spin around its base and occasionally climb up to it, in moments of ecstasy or revelation.

Lighting Designer Rachel Burke tints everything in blue, a subtle but constant reminder of the asbestos being mined and being breathed in. Burke illuminates the characters and the billboard but leaves everything else to the darkness, making the intimate Red Stitch space feel like it’s on the edge of the vast outback desert of the Pilbara.

Susie Dee’s direction allows for pauses to accentuate the poetry of Butler’s writing and encourages the actors to dance in the dust and disappear into the darkness before finding the light again. Images of movement and stillness are indelible parts of this production for me. Movement and text in perfect symbiosis.

Emily Godard’s Pearl acts as narrator for much of the play, slipping between the open-mouthed child and the toughened older version, seemingly with ease. Godard also has moments playing other townsfolk and boarders, and she is able to elicit memorable characterisations in a perfectly-chosen stance and a single line of dialogue. As always, Godard’s work is astonishing.

Caroline Lee’s performance as Dot is compelling and devastating. Lee slyly shoots off Dot’s wicked sense of humour before twisting into the unbreakable mother and the hardened woman who is facing her own mortality. It’s not a straight line between loving life and confronting death though. Lee’s Dot is a fully-realised human being from the beginning. We might get a glimpse of the end early on, but Lee makes Dot the kind of person you want to watch in any situation. Lee’s work here is a triumph.

A recurring line in “Blue Sky Mine” is who’s gonna save me and in Mary Anne Bulter’s Wittenoom the answer might be nobody, because the truth of the town is too awful to bear. But that’s not to say that in the darkness, on the edge of the desert, you can’t find moments of beauty even when time is running out.

Wittenoom is superb; full of humour and pathos, gorgeous to listen to and beautiful to look at. It reminds us of a dark chapter of the Australian story, exposing it to the light and reminding us of the real people at its centre.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Travel back in time to Wittenoom at Red Stitch until February 19th

Photos: Jodie Hutchinson