Friday, December 3, 2021

Theatre: The Bleeding Tree

by Angus Cerini

Blue Room Theatre

Until December 11


Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree is a remarkable work. The Helpmann Award winner for best play in 2016, its Blue Room season is passionate, poetic and immensely powerful.

The fine actor Ian Michael makes his directorial debut with a play he’s dreamt of staging since he saw it five years ago, and he and his outstanding cast do complete justice to Cerini’s vision.

The Bleeding Tree is a “murder” without a mystery. It begins with a gunshot as the audience is entering the theatre. We learn immediately there’s a body – represented by a pile of dirt on the floor – and that it’s that of a brutal drunkard who’s the husband of a woman (Karla Hart) and father of two sisters (Abbie-Lee Lewis and Ebony McGuire).

He’s returned home from the pub, shit-faced and terrifying. One of his girls fells him with a blow to the shins, another clubs him unconscious on the ground before the mother puts a shotgun to his neck and blows it apart. “Thank God the prick is dead”.

It’s also a horror story without the traditional tension. The physical threat posed by the man is over with his death, but the horror of him is recalled by the three women in awful detail throughout the play.

The lack of traditional tension continues as three people – two neighbours and the local postman – who come to the house quickly piece together what has happened.

They haven’t the slightest intention of informing on the women, though. If anything, they help the women get their story – the man had left them and gone to stay with his (fictitious) sister Marg  “somewhere up north” – sorted and assist with the disposal of the body.

But this is no ordinary story, and it’s told in an extraordinary way.

To begin with, the dialogue is entirely in verse, most often blank, sometimes in rhyme. It’s a dark liturgy of outrage, of fear and fury at the despicable man who blighted their lives.

And it is dominated by a ferocious metaphor; the women have no means of disposing of his body, but their first visitor remarks, ostensibly apropos of nothing, that under the right circumstances, an exposed body will decompose in three days.

It’s an idea worth acting on.

The body is strung up on a tree in the back yard where the family bled out the goats they slaughtered – literally where the dingoes and crows could molest him.

And they do, along with the rats, the flies and their maggots, the ants, even the chooks, and finally, taking its long-awaited vengeance, the postman’s dog.

It’s a righteous carnival of the excarnation of the body, and Cerini takes it further than even Zoroastrians do; after the scavengers have done their business, the mother boils the bones into a broth to fertilise the roses she intends to grow. Like Dylan Thomas’s lovers, his “bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone” – but for this man there will be no stars at elbow and foot, and Death will have its dominion.

It sounds gruesome, I guess it is, but you feel like cheering every time a rat climbs out of the neck wound or the dog crunches a bone; it’s an excoriation devoutly to be wished.

It’s also a deeply moral story in the face of the daily real-life horrors faced by women and children at the hands of violent husbands and fathers, and, in the hands of an Indigenous director and cast, the unretributed violence committed on the inhabitants of Australia by its colonisers.

The production is faultless; Tyler Hill’s set – a box of latticed wood, somewhere between an enclosed lean-to and a cell, floats in darkness above the theatre floor, it’s interior lit menacingly by Chloe Ogilvie. This is a project made for Rachael Dease, and her sound design begins as a soft growl, a dirge and a buzz, but folds into a soft hymn as the ritual obliteration of the man proceeds.

In this stultifying, defiled but somehow sacred place, Hart, Lewis and McGuire are avenging angels, priestesses at the sacrifice of the un-innocent. Their anger, and their humanity, are incandescent.

This year the West Australian theatre has emerged from the pandemic better and more vital than could have been hoped. The Bleeding Tree is an amazing way to finish it. Do not miss.


An edted version of this review appeared in Seesaw Magazine (