Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree reveals the brutalising and disfiguring reality of male violence, says Ben Brooker
“History is full of people who just didn’t,” writes Anne Boyer in her essay “No”, which was published in A Handbook of Disappointed Fate. “They said no thank you, turned away, escaped to the desert, lived in barrels, burned down their own houses, killed their rapists, pushed away dinner, meditated into the light.” The power of the feminist refusal is immense; it can shatter dynasties and turn a second act into a first.
– Sharanya, A Manifesto for Staging Gendered Violence
When Angus Cerini’s taut, non-naturalistic revenge drama The Bleeding Tree premiered at Griffin Theatre Company in 2015 it won virtually every award going. It’s been produced a handful of times since, most recently in a production by Hobart’s Blue Cow Theatre. In the cold light of day, I’m not sure the play is the masterwork many of its early critics took it to be. It lacks the quality of revelation truly great plays need, and is perhaps a little too self-aware in the construction of its effects. It never quite manages to strike more than one or two notes, either, a problem even in a play as compact as this.
Nevertheless, as an exercise in sustained dread and Grand Guignol-esque horror, the play is undoubtedly compelling. It doesn’t tell us about domestic abuse or cycles of trauma so much as register their effects in a sparse, blackly comic argot reminiscent at times of a murder ballad or an Angela Carter fairytale. Its other progenitor is the tragic drama of the Jacobean and Elizabethan stages. There’s also something intriguing about a man giving full expression to women’s rage at male violence, a theme with which Cerini – himself the victim of bashing perpetrated by men – has long been preoccupied.
The play opens in striking fashion with three women announcing, in the manner of a Greek chorus, their collective murder of the “useless fuckhead” who tormented and abused them. The nameless mother (Elena Carapetis) and her two girls, Ida (Miranda Daughtry) and Aida (Annabel Matheson), alternately reel from and revel in the sight of his body, a bullet hole through its neck, as it begins to rot and stink in the scouring heat of the Australian outback.
They relive the murder and describe the corpse’s decomposition in lurid detail, their initial disbelief hardening into a shared narrative not quite convincing enough to assuage the suspicions of three neighbours who show up over three days looking for the dead man. All the while, the women’s attention remains fixed on the corpse – a cause of guilt, especially for Ida, but mostly the object of their cathartic invective. Eventually they string it up from a tree used to bleed cattle, now carrion for rats and birds. Even the animals, it seems, will have their revenge on this monstrous patriarch.
Victoria Lamb’s multi-level set is a ragged assemblage of wooden boards and struts that recalls an executioner’s gallows. In places we can see through holes and cracks to its foundations, an analogue for the dark social underbellies Cerini’s play exposes. Chris Petridis’ lighting design, blending white side-lighting and hazy orange down-lights, effectively evokes the harshness of the Australian bush. James Oborn’s sound design and Jason Sweeney’s composition are subtle but smart, utilising understated piano, ethereal vocals, and washes of ambient electronics along with percussive effects that underline key pieces of dialogue.
Corey McMahon, Artistic Director of Theatre Republic, provides slickly unobtrusive direction, content to let Cerini’s text and the performances do most of the work. There is little here in the way of bold choices or interpretive baggage. Throughout, the actors remain in close orbit, often simply lined up across the stage, as the dialogue conjures one vivid image after another. At times it almost feels as though we’re watching the recording of a radio play.
No doubt, in choosing a play with an all-female cast, McMahon has sought to balance things out after Theatre Republic’s debut production of Pamela Carter’s Lines, a play about young men and war with nary a woman in sight. Seated in the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute’s Ngunyawayiti Theatre, I couldn’t help but wonder what the casting of Aboriginal actors might have brought to this production. It’s not hard to imagine how the play’s latent critique of colonialist violence – historically ignored and excused, much like male brutality in the home – might have been rewardingly drawn out by such a choice.
As it is, the performances are excellent. Carapetis imbues the role of the mother with both ferocity and vulnerability, shifting easily between different characters. Her vocal control, at its most impressive when dropping into a male tenor, is impeccable. Matheson is also first-rate as Aida, the younger of the two girls, while Daughtry holds her own despite a performance that feels a little mannered compared to the other two. I only wished costume designer Bianka Kennedy had resisted the urge to give them identical haircuts – shoulder-length with ruler-straight bangs – which give them too much the air of horror movie twins.
For all its textual brawn, the play’s internal logic is pretty flimsy. Why would the women risk the exposure of their crime by leaving the body in plain sight? And their descriptions of the corpse’s various states of decomposition seem inconsistent as well as occasionally far-fetched. But in the end, The Bleeding Tree is a revenge fantasy, not a social play, that has more in common with, say, Titus Andronicus than Rod Ainsworth’s It All Begins With Love.
Its power lies in the way it simply shows, without editorialisation, the brutalising and disfiguring reality of male violence. In one of the play’s most disturbing scenes, the girls attempt to slap their mother out of a state of near total disassociation from herself and the world. In its own way, the play does something similar to us.
The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini, directed by Corey McMahon. Designerd by Victoria Lamb, lighting design by Chris Petridis, composition by Jason Sweeney. Performed by Elena Carapetis, Miranda Daughtry and Annabel Matheson. Theatre Republic at the Ngunyawayiti Space, Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, State Theatre Company of South Australia. Until December 19. Bookings.
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