October 01, 1994

The War Within


Because You Are Mine

by Daniel Keene

Red Shed Company

Space, September, 1994.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

In the Festival Centre Trust’s Brave New Works season there could be few works as brave and new as Daniel Keene’s Red Shed commission Because You Are Mine. The Shed has presented other works by Keene -Low, a taut two-hander of underclass crime and punishment and the densely poetic dream play, All Souls. They were strong productions – some of the Shed’s best- but in Because You Are Mine both company and playwright have pushed even further.

The setting is the Balkans although nothing is specified. Designer Mary Moore has scooped out the Space to create what looks like a vast ferro-concrete car park. It is also like a gallery for exhibits, the dramatic fragments and tableaux which constitute the shards of the play. The city is suggested as vast and empty. People come out for water- from a tap which may or not be running. They come out for help or to look for the lost. They struggle against feral self-interest, when they become involved with another’s predicament it inevitably brings danger.

Keene skilfully works from what we already know from the relentless news footage of the siege of Sarajevo, of the death camps, of systematic rape and that grisly late-century euphemism, ethnic cleansing. He also tells us what we don’t quite know  because our information is both specific and opaque. We see the images but they are out of reach because they are endlessly reconstructed, frogmarched by doublespeak, erased by the sleek urbanity of diplomacy.

In Because You Are Mine the dead speak. “Time is what holds us together,” says one wraith, “This is our time. I am saying I am yours… ” (and so the title- Because You Are Mine.) The first to speak is Fatima, describing her death by rifleshot. There are no histrionics. Actor Eileen Darley maintains a splendid stillness as she describes remembering a favourite necklace in her dying moments.

Gathered at the tap with their plastic buckets a group of women speculate on the fate of a corpse covered in a sheet at centrestage. Some wonder at the cause, others show a practiced distance from events which don’t concern them. Some say there is a war, others say it will pass. All are kept in Kafkaesque ignorance of cause and effect. Nothing is identified, all signs are ominous and cryptic. The only things knowable are food and shelter. Water is precious, a few sticks placed around the corpse to keep the sheet secure are later stolen for their meagre worth. Cigarettes are cautiously shared. Peaches are talked of as something beyond aspiration. When an old woman gives a waif an apple it is the epitome of kindness.

With creditable thrift Keene vividly sketches the privation and the systematc violence visited on the civilian population. A soldier sprawls in a chair while a young woman, Miriam, stands naked, huddled at a table, waiting to be raped and abused again. Back in her  cell she is confronted by Marta, demented with fear and denial that her turn will also come. In another scene Yuri  goes to the Red Cross to look for his missing son. Fatima shows him photographs of the unidentified dead. The lights flicker off and on with the fitful supply. When it is time to leave they travel together for safety. But there is no safety and they are rounded up and brutalised.

Director Tim Maddock has brought these moments of crisis and community, cruelty and integrity, into the clearest focus. The staging is fluent and meticulous. He uses projections and  crisp natural sound – taps drip, leaves rustle, hearts break. Karen Norris’s lighting ranges from pools of merciless exposure to a gentle lyricism amid Mary Moore’s astutely practical stage design.

The performances also are intelligently  restrained. Eileen Darley is impressive as the courageous Fatima and the doomed Juliet figure, Gunda. Sally Hildyard and Joey Kennedy bring some of their best work to the portraits of Miriam and Marta and Justine Saunders imbues Keene’s vignette of Hedi, the old woman who rescues the child Alexis, with the simplicity of folktale. Keith Agius offers contrasting images as the Soldier and the young Tibor, caught in a crossfire while escaping with his fiancee. Frank Whitten’s Kozma is sharply drawn- a hyperkinetic black marketeer- and as Yuri he and Eileen Darley share, in the office scene, one of the finest Keene has written.

Because You Are Mine is an ambitious work. It ran the risk of appropriating experiences and failing to realise them. It could have been pious and sententious. It is none of these. Instead Daniel Keene has put words and images to events which are not openly discussed but which cut deep in the minds of many Australians- not only  those with direct links with the Balkan states but those who recognise the region as a significant cultural source in our community. The play is particular to this grief but it speaks to civilian suffering anywhere. Keene has put faces and voices to what strategists now blandly call collateral damage- and Tim Maddock has shaped them into a work of theatre which has is articulate and elegant. Because You Are Mine does more than prod at our sympathies it soaks deep into the imagination. A week is no season at all for such exceptional new work. Daniel Keene is among the very best of our playwrights and he should feel very pleased with the Red Shed as well.

“The War Within” The Adelaide Review, No.132, October, 1994, p.32.

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