Alison Croggon reviews the hotly anticipated Melbourne production of Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree
The walls echo with the thump of my body
The fists in the doors
The creak of a beer bottle being opened
The shame behind our doors.
I am battered
My cells echo with his words
‘No one would want you’, ‘worthless’, ‘nutcase’, ‘problem’, ‘your the problem’, ‘your fault’, ‘bad mother’, ‘look at your family history’, ‘I love you’, ‘bitch’ …..
The agony is a death to my soul, pin pricks in my skin
Katrina Cockburn, posted on Facebook by her mother Cynda Miles in 2014
It’s impossible to watch Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree without thinking of the recent murders in Margaret River, the worst mass shooting in this country since Port Arthur, in which 61-year old Peter Miles shot dead his wife Cynda, his daughter Katrina Cockburn, her four children and finally himself.
Miles’s crime is only unusual in its degree. Such murders are all but routine: in Australia, 24 women have died violently so far this year. On average, one woman every week is killed. The phrase “domestic violence” seems a pale euphemism for this terror, for the brutalisation of the stories that lie behind each different death.
How can art possibly represent such horrific realities? Can it do so without actually reproducing the violence, or making a voyeuristic entertainment of human suffering? On the other hand, what is the point of art that doesn’t pay attention to such things? In The Bleeding Tree, Cerini, clearly aware of these dilemmas, makes no attempt at realism. What he fashions instead is a surreal fairytale, a ritual of expiation. In Cerini’s story, set in a remote country town fifty years ago, the women and children hit first.
The play opens with the corpse. The mother, played by Paula Arundell, and her two daughters (Sophie Ross and Brenna Harding) have killed the “house clown” who, as becomes clear through the play, has terrorised them for years. Arundell has shot him in the neck, tearing a hole that becomes the focus of horrified fascination for the rest of the play: a mouth that can no longer speak, an opening that is constantly violated, a doorway for the natural processes of decay.
The three killers feel no remorse whatsoever: instead they pile onto the dead body all the invective that has been directed at them. They speak, as most of Cerini’s characters do, in a brutalised poetic diction, thickly laced with corporeal obscenity. In fact, corporeal obscenity is the entire body of the text: the major action of the play is the decay and gradual dismemberment, by flies, rats and dogs, of the patriarch of the house.
The story is told by the three actors, who shift into third person narrative or different characters as the text requires. In proper fairytale style, the play follows the three days after the murder. Three neighbours turn up, each of them clearly perfectly aware of the crime. The women, afraid of being condemned, make up a cover story, but the body, like the crimes that were committed against them, lies in plain sight, either partially covered by a blanket in the kitchen or hoisted up into a tree in the backyard in a grim parody of a gallows.
You keep thinking of the stench that would pervade the whole place. It’s constantly referred to – the stink of the man, the stink of his abuse.
Three days, their first visitor assures them, is long enough for a body to disintegrate in the heat. Their second visitor, a woman, brings them food and supplies. The third visitor, the local postman and policeman, is their confessor. He’s horrified by the scene of chaotic decomposition that he encounters in their garden, but he also bears his own grudge against the dead man.
None of the visitors condemns them or calls in the official law. In a kind of rough justice, the locals decide to ignore the murder, just as they ignored the violence that they all knew took place in the house. The metaphor begins to wind out from the abuse in a single house to an unsettling image of the genocide of Indigenous Australia: the white tyrant committing crimes in plain sight, which everyone knows about and which no one does anything about.
The three days of the story are a process of magical transformation. The corpse, as the mother points out, is much more full of life than the living man was. She decides to use his body to fertilise her barren garden, boiling up his bones in a copper like a rural Australian Baba Yaga. She plans to grow roses instead.
The mythic resonance of the text is given full rein in Lee Lewis’s stark production. Renée Mulder’s set consists solely of an uneven floor framed by darkness, with the action dramatically heightened by Verity Hampson’s moody lighting. Arundell’s performance dominates the stage: her voice is bewitching, her face a mask that constantly transforms, as she becomes an old man, a child, a wounded and vengeful woman. Next to Arundell, Ross and Harding, who are new to the cast for this season, are less certain presences, shrill hauntings.
There’s nothing realist in this play, from the abstract set to the thick, sensual language, to the implausibilities of the processes of decay or local justice. But its viscerality gives it a sense of the physical realities of violence that makes this gruesome fantasy strangely and disturbingly compelling. It’s only on for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it season, so hurry.
The Bleeding Tree, by Angus Cerini, directed by Lee Lewis. Designed by Renée Mulder, lighting by Verity Hampson, composition by Steve Toulmin. With Paula Arundell, Sophie Ross and Brenna Harding. Fairfax Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, until May 19. Bookings
The Bleeding Tree is a Witness Live Night on Thursday, May 17. Details here.
This production includes strong language and violent imagery.
Access: the Arts Centre is wheelchair accessible. Assistive hearing and a companion card are also available. A captioned performance is available on Saturday May 19 at 2pm.