Grisly and darkly humorous, The Bleeding Tree packs a powerful punch in its State Theatre season, writes Bruce Denny.
The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini, Black Swan State Theatre Company and The Blue Room Theatre
Welcome to Country by Aunty Liz Hayden
The Studio Underground, 2 May 2023
Powerfully written yet poetic, The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini has won multiple awards since its premiere in 2016.
It’s a story of revenge and retribution with a liberal dose of black humour. A murder without the whodunit, because we are told at the start who done it and as the story unfolds you don’t even question why they done it. The mongrel deserved it.
This West Australian production of The Bleeding Tree began its life at The Blue Room Theatre in 2021, and has made its way to the Studio Underground in 2023, courtesy of a collaboration between Black Swan State Theatre Company and The Blue Room, designed to give independent artists an opportunity to present their work on a mainstage.
The tale has a shattering start, in more senses than one. A battered family, brutalised at the hands of a violent drunken husband, take their revenge. The wife (Karla Hart) her two daughters (Ebony McGuire and Stephanie Somerville) each explain their contribution to his demise. A blow to the shins to bring him down, a club to the head to render him unconscious and finally a shotgun to the throat for the full stop.
Nobody in town seems too upset by what they guess, correctly, has happened. Like Sargent Schultz from Hogans Heroes – “I know nothing” – they all pretend not to see the body, but subtly give advice on how to dispose of it. This is a metaphor for a greater sin; it becomes apparent that everyone has known about this brute of a man for years and done nothing. They have collectively ignored the family’s plight and the violence to which they have been subjected. With no support or intervention from the authorities, we understand why this family felt forced to take justice into their own hands.
The superb set design by Tyler Hill allows the actors and the audience to breathe a little easier as the play unfolds. A lattice work fence frames the stage, tight and confining at the outset, reflecting the cell-like containment of the mother and daughters.
Slowly, imperceptibly, the performance space expands, to give a little relief and transport us into the backyard and to the bleeding tree where the corpse has been hung out to be deconstructed by the sun, the rats, flies, maggots and finally the chooks and a postman’s dog with a long memory. The dismembering of the body is related in gruesome detail but I found myself hanging on every grisly description, chuckling and even cheering the critters on.
Then, in a lesson on sustainability, anything that remains is boiled up as fertiliser for the rose garden.
Lighting by Chole Ogilvie casts patchwork patterns and sound design by Rachael Dease references audio aesthetics of the horror genre. Both add to the tension and emotion without intruding on the story, instead enhancing it in all the right measures.
On opening night the three actors handled the word-heavy script perhaps a little too smoothly; more variety of tone and pace wouldn’t have gone astray. But at the same time, that similarity of voice captured the sense of a family closing ranks to defend itself. Not even an unscheduled 20 minute break broke their stride.
Though the work has a First Nations director and cast, don’t be fooled into thinking this is just a Blakfulla story. Domestic violence and the damage that a drunken abuser can inflict on a family does not differentiate for colour or class.
It would be a bleeding shame if you miss The Bleeding Tree because it is powerful theatre.
Pictured top are Karla Hart, Ebony McGuire and Stephanie Somerville in ‘The Bleeding Tree’. Photo by Daniel J Grant
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