An oratorio of private pain: Alison Croggon reviews Lab Kelpie’s brilliant production of Mary Anne Butler’s Broken
You can see why Mary Anne Butler’s play Broken won, not only the Drama Prize in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, but the overall award, the first play to beat the heavyweights of fiction and non-fiction. As this brilliant production at fortyfivedownstairs demonstrates, it’s an ambitious and complex play, weaving together the inner stories of three characters at critical points in their lives.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it feels – and I use this word advisedly because it’s loaded – a very literary text: the kind of writing you wouldn’t be surprised to read in a contemporary novel. Broken isn’t so much a dramatic play as a kind of spoken oratorio.
It’s a form that’s not unfamiliar in Australian theatre: most recently, we saw it in Angus Cerini’s award-winning The Bleeding Tree. However, Broken most reminds me of Tom Holloway’s Red Sky Morning, which premiered at Red Stitch a decade ago. (Broken even echoes the title of this play in its text, which may or may not be a graceful homage). Certainly, like Red Sky Morning, Broken gives voice to the internal monologues of three ordinary lives.
While Holloway’s play is about depression, Butler is looking at trauma, which perhaps explains why nothing really happens in Red Sky Morning, while a lot happens in Broken. By taking us outside (or maybe beyond) dramatic action, this form creates a static theatre that throws the emphasis onto voice and language. This means it requires extremely intelligent production, and under the direction of Susie Dee, Butler has one of the best teams around.
The three characters we follow – Ash (Naomi Rukavina), Mia (Sophie Ross) and Ham (Lyall Brooks) – are discovered in moments of crisis that occur on a single night. Ash, a biologist, has rolled her car off the Stuart Highway, the road that runs between Darwin and Adelaide. Ham, a fly-in-fly-out SES worker, encounters the accident and saves Ash’s life. Mia is in the throes of a miscarriage.
As their stories weave through each other, we realise all these characters are connected. During the long wait for the ambulance, as they talk to keep Ash conscious, Ash and Ham fall deeply and mysteriously in love. Mia and Ham are trapped in a dying relationship, and the baby Mia’s lost, a life that she desperately, obsessively wanted to nourish, was semi-deliberately aborted.
The situations are introduced in visceral detail: the physical pain that Ash and Mia experience jumps from one to the other, sometimes in identical phrasing, Mia’s screams vocalising Ash’s anguish, and vice versa. Ham is caught uneasily between the pain of these two women, unable either to leave his wife, who is drowning her sadness in whiskey, or to follow his desire for Ash, who is left, abandoned in hospital, despite her complete certainty that he will come for her.
All these events occur in a kind of no-space, through a sense of suspended time that follows the arc of emotional event. Ian Moorhead’s brooding sound design sets up this imaginative space, his sound articulating a kind of essay in darkness punctuated by flickering fluorescent lights. Marg Horwell’s design empties the stage at fortyfivedownstairs to echo the emptiness that inhabits each of the characters. The space is shaped by the bodies moving within it and Andy Turner’s lighting design, which after the introductory plunge into the subconscious settles into shadows pierced by beams of light that probe through a slatted wooden wall that stretches the length of one side.
It’s beautifully choreographed, so these three actors and their voices fill the huge stage. This is a first class cast: they give us massive and courageous performances, beautifully modulated, that plunge into the emotional depths summoned by the text. Ross is almost passionately devastated, a performance that moves us because it never overstates itself; Rukavina brings kind of mobile grief to her pain, while Brooks negotiates the difficult terrain of a decent bloke who lets down everyone he loves with a painful verisimilitude.
It’s hard to think how any production might better serve this play. My reservations end up being with the text itself: it’s undeniably well-written and often beautiful, but after a while I found that even these powerful performances couldn’t quite transcend its static nature.
The nature of this form, in which characters articulate everything that happens within them, is that what we’re witnessing is all subtext, rather than active dialogue that pulls up subtext in its wake. As the play continued, I found myself wanting something more (or maybe, less) direct in the language; the poetic descriptions of particular emotional states for me needed more play and movement, more exploration of the ambiguities of speech. We know by the end all these characters are broken, but it’s often simply described to us, losing a whole dimension of theatricality.
In its very articulacy, this play lacks any strong sense of how people are blinded or deceived or failed by language, or of the ways in which trauma splinters memory and our sense of ourselves. These characters always know exactly what’s happening to them in their crises, even if they don’t know what to do about it. For this reason, Broken is most startlingly vivid when it’s talking about the precisions of physical, rather than emotional, pain. Even so, recommended.
Broken, by Mary Anne Butler, directed by Susie Dee. Designed by Marg Horwell, lighting design by Andy Turner, composition and sound design by Ian Moorhead. Performed by Lyall Brooks, Sophie Ross and Naomi Rukavina. Lab Kelpie at fortyfivedownstairs. Until November 25. Bookings
Contains strong language, adult themes, loud sounds and the use of haze.
Latecomers will not be admitted.
Auslan interpreted performance: Sunday November 18
Wheelchair access to the theatre is from Spark Lane, which is a small lane running off Flinders Street, between Spring and Exhibition. fortyfivedownstairs need to know 24 hours before the event in question, or by 5pm on Friday if it is a weekend event on (03) 9662 9966. You will then be provided with detailed instructions including the stage or venue manager’s phone number.