REVIEW: Blood in the Water by Jorja Bentley

In the dining room of a snug Eastern-suburbs home, a low-stakes family argument is happening. Sixteen-year-old Jenny wants to go glamping with her friends, but her mother, Ruth, wants her home for Ruth’s birthday celebrations. Step-dad, Reuben, is there to smooth things out, find some compromise, putting his political advisory skills into action. He’s trying to keep everybody happy. 

But this minor family turmoil is about to be overshadowed by a bigger problem. Ruth’s son has been at a friend’s party, against her wishes, and he’s been arrested. Accused of sexual assault.

The accused son stays off-stage for the entire show, because writer Jorja Bentley is interested in exploring the fall-out for the rest of the family. How much support do you give a child credibly accused of raping his girlfriend? How long can you look for excuses for his behaviour? What kind of household has he been raised in that could lead to this? It’s a rich source of drama. There are, of course, no easy answers.

The main source of conflict is mother and daughter. Anna, the survivor of the assault, is close to the family. A friend of Jenny. But where Ruth is quick to jump to her son’s defence, Jenny isn’t as willing to believe his side of the story. Jenny believes Anna. She’s been raised to believe women and to be distrustful of men. It runs in the family.

And when a damning video surfaces, questions of innocence fall by the wayside. Ruth thinks he must have been coerced into it. Reuben is doing a lot of ringing around, trying to save face for his future political career. But the media hordes have descended because he works for the local mayor, who has had his own drink driving scandal recently. A story Reuben helped to cover up.

Ruth’s sister, Sally, arrives to help support them all, but worries that the family is cursed by genetics to be fuck-ups. Turns out this is the next step in a cycle of family violence. Sally is ready to deal within the context of the broken family she and Ruth escaped. Ruth, in her more comfortable life, refuses to let the past catch up to her.

The set-up of the play and the family dynamics are fascinating. A mother and teenage daughter in conflict may be a truism, but Ruth is damaged by the past and Jenny has a clear sense of modern morality. We hear a lot of stories about young men getting leniency from their “one mistake” but Jenny has grown up in a world where this has been fought and argued against. Her brother’s one mistake will scar her friend forever.

Unfortunately, the play that continues from this central premise ends up more and more melodramatic. Where the relationship between Jenny and aunt Sally feels real, the conflict of both with Ruth spirals out of control. Sally and Ruth argue long into the night about the family history that has led them there, but Sally seems fixated on their genes – as if blood has cursed them to never escape the cycle of violence. Jenny chooses to leave the family home, but the arguments with her mother just follow her there and there’s no sense of growth or change.

One of the clear ideas the play tackles is about how much a family should be or feel responsible for one another. How far do we go to protect blood kin? How long should we feel accountable for those who have broken the law and ruined lives? But it never wants to commit to the idea that sometimes it’s best to walk away from toxic family. The text is hesitant about giving clear answers, understandably, but that leads to arguments that run in circles.

The play gets hung up on whether or not Ruth should be a character witness for her son, with the idea that a mother’s support might sway the jury. Might she be able to explain his acts away? Might she be able to convince them he’s really a good boy, who had a bad night? Dramatically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It speaks to her inner turmoil, but the idea stretches credulity.

Other ill-conceived details – like asking to sign divorce papers after ten months, or a joke about missing people on milk cartons, or a teenage girl sitting on a table with her shoes on – just took me out of the reality of these scenes. Playing one dramatic confrontation between Ruth and Reuben at the extreme edge of the stage made it feel like an aside, not a central piece of action.

Bethany J Fellows’ set design - rows of curtains framing the action - gives the feeling of voyeurism, while hinting at the notion of a picture frame around an ideal middle-class life.

Mia Tuco’s Jenny is an archetypal teenage girl who can talk in circles and baffle her parents, but she lets us into her inner life. In contrast, Chris Koch’s mother feels almost robotic. At moments, it’s understandable that Ruth is just going through the motions, but for much of the play, I never really understood Ruth’s motivations or anything beyond the moment she was playing. Lana Schwarcz is having a lot of fun as queer sister, Sally, who knows everything about everyone and can cut to the heart of each matter.

Blood in the Water has a lot to say about what must be a frighteningly regular family story; dealing with the fallout of a son’s criminal actions. And because these stories have long been framed as “who is telling the truth”, this angle feels fresh. How does a family stay together after this kind of trauma?

The title alludes to an image of the family being set upon; a shark attacks when it smells blood in the water. But for all the conflict and trying to pull themselves apart, Bentley’s play seems to settle on the old idea that "blood is thicker than water" – and never really asks if that is true.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Blood in the Water is playing at La Mama Courthouse until June 30 

Photos: Darren Gill