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Reviews/Theatre

Dark liturgy of fear and fury is a fantastic finish to the year

30 November 2021

The Bleeding Tree is a murder without mystery, a horror story without tension, and it’s as remarkable as it is brilliant, says David Zampatti.

The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini, directed by Ian Michael ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 24 November 2021 ·

Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree is a remarkable work. The Helpmann Award winner for best play in 2016, its Blue Room season is passionate, poetic and immensely powerful.

The fine Noongar actor Ian Michael makes his directorial debut with a play he’s dreamt of staging since he saw it five years ago, and he and his outstanding First Nations cast do complete justice to Cerini’s vision.

The Bleeding Tree is a “murder” without a mystery. We learn immediately that there’s a body – represented by a pile of dirt on the floor – of a brutal drunkard who’s the husband of a woman (Karla Hart) and father of two sisters (Abbie-Lee Lewis and Ebony McGuire).

He’s returned home from the pub, shit-faced and terrifying. One of his girls fells him with a blow to the shins, another clubs him unconscious on the ground before the mother puts a shotgun to his neck and blows it apart. “Thank God the prick is dead.”

It’s also a horror story without the traditional tension. The physical threat posed by the man is over with his death, but the horror of him is recalled by the three women in awful detail throughout the play.

This is no ordinary story, and it’s told in an extraordinary way.

To begin with, the dialogue is entirely in verse, often blank, sometimes in rhyme. It’s a dark liturgy of outrage, of fear and fury at the despicable man who blighted their lives.

And it is dominated by a ferocious metaphor; the women have no means of disposing of his body, but as their first visitor remarks, under the right circumstances an exposed body will decompose in three days.

Three women sit inside a latticed box; two downstage, one centre back, in a triangle formation. The woman at the back holds flowers and behind her beams of light radiate outward and upwards, so that their faces are cast into shadow.
Tyler Hill’s set is lit menacingly by Chloe Ogilvie. Pictured are Karla Hart, Abbie-Lee Lewis and Ebony McGuire. Photo: Tashi Hall

The body is strung up on a tree in the back yard where the family bled out the goats they slaughtered – literally where the dingoes and crows could molest him.

And they do, along with the rats, the flies and their maggots, the ants, even the chooks, and finally, taking its long-awaited vengeance, the postman’s dog.

It’s a righteous carnival of the excarnation of the body, and Cerini takes it further than even Zoroastrians do; after the scavengers have done their business, the mother boils the bones into a broth to fertilise the roses she intends to grow. Like Dylan Thomas’s lovers, his “bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone” – but for this man there will be no stars at elbow and foot, and Death will have its dominion.

It sounds gruesome, but you feel like cheering every time a rat climbs out of the neck wound or the dog crunches a bone; it’s an excoriation devoutly to be wished.

It’s also a deeply moral story in the face of the daily real-life horrors faced by women and children at the hands of violent husbands and fathers, and, in the hands of a First Nations director and cast, the unretributed violence committed on the inhabitants of Australia by its colonisers.

The production is faultless; Tyler Hill’s set – a box of latticed wood, somewhere between an enclosed lean-to and a cell – floats in darkness above the theatre floor, it’s interior lit menacingly by Chloe Ogilvie. This is a project made for Rachael Dease, and her sound design begins as a soft growl, a dirge and a buzz, but folds into a soft hymn as the ritual obliteration of the man proceeds.

In this stultifying, defiled but somehow sacred place, Hart, Lewis and McGuire are avenging angels, priestesses at the sacrifice of the un-innocent. Their anger and their humanity are incandescent.

This year West Australian theatre has emerged from the pandemic better and more vital than could have been hoped. The Bleeding Tree is an amazing way to finish it. Do not miss.

The Bleeding Tree runs at the Blue Room theatre until 11 December 2021.

Pictured top: Karla Hart, Abbie-Lee Lewis and Ebony McGuire. Photo: Tashi Hall

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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