December 12, 2020

The Bleeding Tree (Theatre Republic)

Vengeance and resolution, exorcism and benediction, this excellent new production captures the visceral drama of Angus Cerini’s remarkable play.

Four and a Half Stars . Ngunyawayiti Theatre, Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide.

Reviewed December 11, 2020
by Murray Bramwell, published online December 12, 2020.

Amongst the anxiety and havoc of Covid-19, the performing arts in 2020 have been systematically clobbered. So many productions abandoned and cancelled, so much effort and commitment brought to nothing.

Adelaide independent company, Theatre Republic’s revival of The Bleeding Tree, listed as part of State Theatre’s Stateside sponsorship program, was scheduled for late August. The social distancing requirements of the pandemic put paid to that and re-setting the season, as in so many other cases, was in doubt. When the December date was decided on, the company went into rehearsal only to be abruptly halted by Adelaide’s sudden, but mercifully brief lockdown. Fortunately, the persistence of the company – director Corey McMahon, producer Manda Flett, the actors and crew – has brought this excellent work to opening night.

It has been worth the wait. The Bleeding Tree, justly heralded when it first opened at Griffin Theatre in 2015 , has gathered Helpmann and Green Room awards, been re-staged by Sydney and Melbourne companies, and revived this year for separate seasons – in Hobart in October, and now, finally, Adelaide.

Corey McMahon and an outstanding creative team have taken Angus Cerini’s splendidly compact, stylistically inventive text and created fifty eight minutes of galvanising theatre.

The Bleeding Tree is like a timely folktale, it has the cadence of a ballad and the narrative audacity and guignol of a Coen Brothers film. Poetic, macabre, tender and funny, it explores the subterfuge and complexities of domestic violence more urgently and powerfully than naturalistic theatre can.

It opens with what seems like a Greek chorus of disapproval. Three women, a mother and two daughters, face the audience and deliver a torrent of curses and expletives. They have just committed a crime. It is no more of a spoiler to say that they have killed their brutish husband and father, than it is to say that Medea murders her children.

The women revel in their victory, the end of domestic tyranny, felling this vile drunken man like a rotten giant. The women are in shock, elated and gawping at the corpse of their tormentor – first on the ground , then strung up in the bleeding tree used for farm cattle. The mother remarks, eventually, with grim deadpan – “Girls, I think your father’s dead.”

The tension heightens when the women are visited three times – first by their neighbour Mr Jones, then a local woman, and finally the postie (and part-time cop) Steve and his dog Bluey. We never see these people – the exchanges are all recited and acted out by the three women, narrating their predicament as it is happening. Cerini’s device, amplifying the emotion and the turmoil, is both original and compelling.

Presented on Victoria Lamb’s aptly ramshackle wooden set with its frayed decking and vertical beams like a crumbling gallows, (warmly lit by Nick Petridis with sprays from above and the side) McMahon keeps the production compact and understated. Jason Sweeney’s sound design insinuates itself under the action, occasionally punctuated by brief, poignantly keening vocals. The effect is sparse and intriguing, never melodramatic or distracting.

The performances are uniformly excellent. As Mother, Elena Carapetis is senior in both ferocity and moral responsibility, protecting and guiding her children, and doing what the see-no-evil locals finally acknowledge needs to be done. Carapetis is terrific. Her vocal delivery is assured, subtle and true to the text. She navigates Cerini’s skilfully fashioned mix of dialects and timbres with poise and barely a raised voice. This is an Australian play but could easily be set in West Virginia, or a Yorkshire village, or the Old Testament.

As the daughters Aida and Ida, Annabel Matheson and Miranda Daughtry are in lock-step with Carapetis as the three parse and spin Cerini’s hypnotic, choric dialogue like an operatic trio. Dressed in Bianka Kennedy’s simple cotton shifts and ankle boots, Matheson is the eager younger one, while Daughtry wrestles with guilt and doubt and the injunctions of the moral order. The way they both literally give voice to the unseen visitors is compelling.

The Bleeding Tree is an exceptional play and McMahon and Theatre Republic have brought it into vivid being. In an awful year this production is a highlight.

“The Bleeding Tree”, Limelight online, December 12, 2020.

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