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The Bleeding Tree review (Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney)

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Griffin Theatre Company’s production of Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree has picked up three Helpmann Awards and a Sydney Theatre Award since I reviewed it in August 2015. The original cast and creative team have now reassembled to transfer the play from the intimate SBW Stables Theatre to the slightly larger space of Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1 Theatre, for a return season that’s almost sold out.

Given that the production is largely the same, my review of the original season is reproduced below.

There are subtle changes from the first time around, considering the time that’s passed and the dimensions of the new theatre. Paula Arundell’s performance is every bit as astonishing and powerful as I remember, but Shari Sebbens and Airlie Dodds have both gone even deeper into their characters, finding richer resonances and an even more profound sisterly bond. While I remember Arundell as the absolute stand out of the first season, it feels much more like an ensemble piece now.

The new space takes away a little of the sense of claustrophobia of the first season, with Renee Mulder’s set design fanned out to fill the stage. But it means we get a greater sense of the expanses and wide open spaces of the rural community setting.

Verity Hampson’s lighting design — which I didn’t even write about in my first review — has far greater impact in Wharf 1 than it did at Griffin.

But all of what I initially wrote still rings true.

***

Angus Cerini’s brutally brilliant, Griffin Award-winning play The Bleeding Tree has its roots in revenge plays stretching all the way back to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and further back to the Romans and Greeks. But Cerini’s play steps away from the narrative structure laid down in those seminal works and revenge is not the end point but only the beginning.

The Bleeding Tree takes place in the days after a bloody act of revenge and shows the difficult, conflicted aftermath of such an event, raising ethical questions about how communities respond to domestic violence.

When the play begins a mother (Paula Arundell) and her two daughters (Airlie Dodds and Shari Sebbens) are staring out into space, looking completely shaken but determined. They’ve just killed their abusive husband and father. Dodds’ character knocked out his knees, Sebbens’ conked him on the head before Arundell delivered the final blow — a bullet into the neck.

Suddenly there’s a knock at the door and they realise they now have to figure out exactly what to do with the body and how to explain the disappearance of the head of their family. But the women are soon surprised to learn that their friends and neighbours are willing to turn a blind eye when they discover the true circumstances of the disappearance. They always hated that old bastard, even though they did next to nothing about his horrific actions when he was alive.

The women have become, under the harsh rule of the man they killed, a dangerous mix of meek femininity and red-hot fury. They’re now exerting their authority and the only way they know how to do so is in the aggressive, oppressive and violent template laid down by their former oppressor. The two daughters shout demeaning, belittling insults at his corpse — clearly echoing the kind of language he had used to keep them under foot.

It becomes apparent that the murder is only the first step for these three women towards rebuilding their lives and defining their sense of self. But they’re entirely heroic for even taking that first step.

The three women speak as themselves, narrators and the various community members they encounter along the way. Cerini’s writing exists in an almost abstract space — his use of language is sharp and evocative, using playful rhymes along the way — but it’s all narrative-driven, and the narrative structure of this piece is perfect, right down to the quiet, creeping ending.

Director Lee Lewis’ production is entirely in step with Cerini’s writing, matching it for poeticism and sheer impact. It’s simple but simmering with tension, embracing the darkness of the whole scenario.

The action unfolds atop designer Renee Mulder’s set — a claustrophobic mountain of floral wallpaper-covered platforms all at impossibly steep angles. That sweetness is matched by her costumes — three 1950s feminine dresses which mirror the soft, girly colours of the wallpaper.

There’s very little movement in the production, throwing focus onto the words and what the actors do with them. They’re usually perched somewhere precariously atop the set, emphasising the uncertain position they’re in.

The performances are all astonishing and forceful, led by Paula Arundell as the mother working to hold it together for herself and her daughters, and understand exactly what her role is in the new family set up. It’s a character which comes to life vividly in the raspy warmth of Arundell’s distinctive voice.

Shari Sebbens and Airlie Dodds define their performances in reference to one another — they’re almost like two sides of the same coin. Sebbens has a rage which leaps forward while Dodds is more hesitant and concerned about the impact of what they’ve done. Both actors extract every drop of resonance from Cerini’s script, working with not just the meaning of the words but their sonic effect.

It’s a rare thing for every element of a production to converge in this fashion. The combined effect is thrilling.

The Bleeding Tree is at Wharf 1 Theatre until April 8

Photo: Airlie Dodds, Paula Arundell and Shari Sebbens in The Bleeding Tree, © Brett Boardman

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