We’ll go down together: Belvoir’s Brothers Wreck

This is not an easy play to write about. Nor should it be. Of all the subjects and issues which can and remain taboo in the contemporary world, it is two essential inviolable truths which remain the most potent and prohibitively awkward to discuss openly, honestly, truthfully: death, and sex. Yet, bizarrely, they are two constants, along with birth, which we all experience during our lives. As Leah Purcell writes in her director’s note, “death is a universal subject and this play will affect anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one, more so for those who have experienced the loss through suicide. And, in particular to this story, youth suicide – this act knows no colour, it touches us all. What this play asks is: how do people deal with death?” How do we talk about death, to each other, to ourselves, as individuals and as a society?
Before a production commences, I always try to read the program notes – not so much in the hope that they’ll explain what I am about to see, but so that like reading the introduction in a book, I am aware of the context or ideas in the piece. The hardest thing about reading Jada Alberts’ writer’s note is just how personal a story this is, how very much a part of her it is, and there is no disguising it nor apology made for the content of Brothers Wreck which unfolds here on Belvoir’s Upstairs stage.

Brothers Wreck begins with [a] death. We don’t see it, we don’t need to, but we feel it, and more than definitely hear the reaction to it. What follows is a powder-keg of a story about a family trying to hold itself together as it is buffeted and rocked by constant tragedy. While about the – a – family, it also focuses on Ruben, a young man who holds himself responsible for his cousin’s suicide. If only he’d talked to him when he asked, if only he hadn’t bought the fishing net, if only he hadn’t… We watch, helpless, as Ruben is eaten up by a crippling guilt and self-blaming, as he cannot express the enormity of his feelings or anger, his frustration, as he lashes out in false bravado, stepping dangerously close to the fuse that will send everything up in flames.
Heartfelt and angry, it is a cry for help, a desperate plea to break the accelerating downward spiral or clustering of suicides and look after the people who fall through the cracks or are left behind for whatever reason. There is a tenderness here too, a fiercely protective determination, and it sits alongside the darkness and bile as a kind of balm, a salve that helps to (slowly) heal deep words and keeps you from going under. Alberts play takes youth suicide from being a statistic and takes it into the immediate and confronting now, makes you sit up and take notice of it, makes you confront it head on. And it’s not an easy play to sit through, nor is it easy to think about. While it feels a bit too shouty – in that the characters, Ruben especially, do not talk to each other but rather shout at each other – to change it would be to diminish the story’s power, its impact, its urgency.
“It seems clear we have a problem,” Alberts says, “all of us. A responsibility to our families and communities to do our best to stop this clustering, to eliminate the idea that suicide is an option, a way out. I hope we can talk about it carefully, love each other unconditionally and direct the right help to those at risk.” While it is not within the power of one play on one stage to make this difference, it can help to start and or facilitate a larger conversation about these issues. And this is where the play soars.
The cast here are all strong. As Adele, Rarriwuy Hick is fiercely protective of her brother and cousin, a firebrand who gives as good as she gets and does not want to lose another family member. Jarrod (Bjorn Stewart) is warm but tough, his scenes with Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) are moving, a gentle and strong hand reaching out to try and pull him back to shore form the depths of the dark ocean. As Ruben, Hunter Page-Lochard is full of a fragile swaggering bravado that slowly crumbles until we find him returning to the old house in the dead of night, confronting the memory of his cousin’s suicide head on. It’s a harrowing moment, but Page-Lochard navigates with disarming skill, bringing us a portrait of a young man running away from himself and his family. As Ruben’s counsellor David, Cramer Cain is another hand trying to help him out of the riptide, trying to help him talk about it, trying trying trying. As we discover, David too has his own story about youth suicide, as a former teacher, and we realise in this moment that no one is ever untouched by events such as these; the memories will not and do not go away, but stay ever-present with us always. As Petra, the family’s aunt, Lisa Flanagan brings a protective catalyst into the household and, like Adele, gives as good as she gets and won’t stand for Ruben’s roughness and barely-suppressed anger and frustration, challenging him to change, challenging him to become a better person.
There’s a beautiful analogy in the middle of the play, about a cluster of shipwrecks in the harbour, three ships that have sunk around and on top of each other. ‘Brothers Wreck’ it’s called, and it stands as a warning to what could happen if Ruben doesn’t stop hurtling down the road he’s already barrelling down. It’s a prime fishing spot, a place where Ruben, Jarrod and their (recently deceased) cousin Joe used to go in a tinny they patched up, but beneath its abundance of salmon and barramundi, there lies a wreck and there’s no escaping it, its depths, its danger.
As a first play, Brothers Wreck is remarkably assured. There is a maturity and confidence which is often missing in more experienced work, and it will be a pleasure to watch Alberts’ voice grow and evolve over the forthcoming years. As her debut, Brothers Wreck is harrowing but out of the darkness comes a light, a vitality, a refusal to be swallowed by the limitless depths. “We gotta talk to each other, as hard as it is,” David, the counsellor says. “’Cause I guarantee you, that phone will ring and you’ll have to say goodbye again.” This is a play about people talking to each other, trying to talk to each other, and it hurts, but it is in its own way, beautiful.

Theatre playlist: 28. On the Boat, Mick Harvey

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