It’s difficult to know exactly where to begin in discussing Angela Betzien’s wonderful new play The Hanging, her first to be performed at Sydney Theatre Company. Over the course of her career, Betzien has been exploring crime narratives, Australian Gothic, and the complex (if rarely well-served by drama) period of transition that is female adolescence.
In The Hanging, all of those fascinations, and many more, come together, orbiting around each other in a complex and beautifully balanced piece of writing.
Three teenage girls from a $30,000-a-year private boarding school in Geelong have gone missing, without a trace. After two days, the 14-year-old Iris (Ashleigh Cummings) shows up at a police station, dazed and confused. But the other girls have now been missing for six days, and Detective Flint (Luke Carroll) wants to uncover the truth.
Iris is unable — or unwilling — to recall what happened, despite Flint’s best attempts. But secrets begin to unravel when Iris’s English teacher, Ms Corrossi (Genevieve Lemon), shows up to be Iris’s support person for the interview.
On the surface, The Hanging is one of Betzien’s simplest works — a three-hander, which plays out entirely within one room — but there’s a lot of ambition. It feels almost like an alternative state of the nation play, in the way that it digs into the neglected corners of our national psyche, through these three neglected and misunderstood characters.
Director Sarah Goodes’ production matches the play’s tension and complexity, with perfect pacing and texture as the dynamics shift between the three characters.
This is Goodes’ last production as a Resident Director at STC, leaving to take up the post of Association Director at Melbourne Theatre Company. It’s a great high for this versatile and fiercely intelligent director to leave on.
The action plays out on Elizabeth Gadsby’s stylish set — the stage is divided down the centre by a vast grey wall, and above it are projected images of the bush where the girls went missing. David Bergman’s video design captures the aesthetic of Australian Gothic — beautiful, lost girls in a beautiful, dark landscape, haunted by past atrocities — as much as Betzien’s writing captures the principles behind the genre. Nicholas Rayment’s lighting and Steve Francis’s sound are perfectly calibrated to the play’s dynamic.
The performances are all strong — Luke Carroll delivers a persistent and determined performance as the cop who must extract answers from this girl; changing strategies and trying to uncover exactly what’s happened.
Ashleigh Cummings is excellent as the young woman discovering the boundaries of her sexual and social power, as well as her place amongst her peers. It’s never entirely clear what Iris knows or what she’s experienced out in the wilderness, and Cummings holds that mystery well, inviting the audience to lean in and listen out for the clues.
But it’s Genevieve Lemon who shines brightest. Lemon has such distinctive mannerisms and vocal patterns, recognisable from her many years performing on Sydney stages, but she seems to slip effortlessly into the role of Ms Corrossi.
She’s funny, prickly and outwardly assured, but it soon becomes clear that she’s no less lost than Iris, reaching a different, but equally terrifying, stage of a woman’s life. When it emerges that Ms Corrossi’s passion for sharing literature with the girls has had a profound and dangerous effect, the tables begin to turn.
There is just so much good writing in this play. It’s the sort of piece where a 14-year-old girl can exclaim “nobody ever believes us”, or an English teacher can offer up a beautiful assessment of all the world’s failings in one sentence, and the play continues to bound on, because it has so much more to cover.
Betzien’s subversion of genre to give a voice to these characters — particularly the two women, who are extraordinarily complex — is one of the most exciting things to happen in Australian playwriting in recent years.
Sydney Theatre Company has presented quite a few very strong new Australian works over the last few years, but The Hanging is the most original, and the one which pulls the company into new territory.