Murder ballads: Griffin Theatre Company’s The Bleeding Tree

The statistics are staggering on average, one woman is killed every week as a result of intimate partner violence; one in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by someone known to them; one in four children are exposed to domestic violence, which is a recognised form of child abuse; while two-thirds of domestic homicides are committed by an intimate partner. These are not figures but people, lives which are affected and often cut short by violence and/or abuse.Angus Cerini’s new play The Bleeding Tree – winner of the 2014 Griffin Award – takes to this world with gusto and gives us a harrowing and darkly-funny play in which women don’t die, but rather get their own back at the man who has been such a violent presence in their lives.
Produced by Griffin Theatre Company, Cerini’s play unfolds upon Renée Mulder’s steeply raked and pleated stage, and his words cascade and hurtle around the little theatre, a potent and heady rush of adrenaline and relief in chiaroscuro (courtesy of lighting designer Verity Hampson). But before a word of Cerini’s script is spoken, we are thrust headfirst into the world of the play – of a mother and her two daughters – by a swirling cresecendoing soundstorm (Steve Toulmin) that shakes the theatre and our seats with unease and trepidation. It’s a powerful mix, and in the hands of director Lee Lewis, the three women – Paula Arundell as the mother, and Shari Sebbens and Airlie Dodds as the daughters – never put a foot wrong on Mulder’s steep set.

On the page, Cerini’s dialogue is unallocated, a forceful stream-of-consciousness bullet of a play, almost more of a tone poem than a play, and it takes a while to find it’s rhythm; once there, however, it rockets along with all the swagger and vitality of one of Nick Cave’s murder ballads. On stage, however, the pacing is quite different, but that’s not a bad thing. One thing Lewis has done is to open up the play, find the breathing space between Cerini’s cascading scenes; amongst his dialogue are three powerful women, almost like the Furies from Greek mythology, who rid themselves (and their small town) of the menace in their lives by taking matters into their own hands. When they relate the story to each other, or one of the (unseen) visitors who come knocking on their door, there’s a sense of pride, of trying to mark their role in the deed, as though to say ‘I helped too; she can’t get all the credit.’ It is undoubtedly powerful – and some would say disturbing – but there is also a tenderness here, a sense of compassion, even if it is slightly out-of-joint with our preconceptions.
There’s a beautiful scene, about halfway through the play, where Arundell talks to one of the rats that has taken over the corpse of her husband; in another’s hands, it could seem frivolous or tonally disjointed from the rest of the play, but Lewis and Arundell make it seem entirely natural, and there’s a sense of wonder amongst her initial disgust, a wonder which soon gives way to glee or joy. But her two daughters don’t share the same view – Airlie Dodds’ character is disgusted by the idea of animals eating her (abusive) father, and would rather they face the consequences of their actions; while Shari Sebbens’ character is similarly scared of being caught out, she also shares her mother’s glee in her father’s change of fortune.
The tension in Cerini’s play comes from the intrusion of three (unseen) neighbours or townsfolk, played variously by Arundell, Sebbens, and Dodds, through nothing more than a shift in voice or stance. First, Mr Jones, their (late) father’s drinking companion, who hears the shot and decides to make sure his friend is alright; next, is Mrs Smith, a well-meaning woman who brings a pie and a small collection from the townspeople to help the women out; last, is Stevens, the town policeman-cum-postman, with his dog. With each visitor’s intrusion into their house, the women’s fear of being caught out escalates, but we soon learn that their father wasn’t much-liked by the rest of the town, and his passing is a welcome sigh of relief. There’s an extraordinary sense of collusion among the visitors and the women, a communal sense of gladness, which might seem strange to some people, but its pay-off during Stevens’ visit is well-calibrated and handled by Cerini, Lewis, and the cast.

While Lewis’ production might not be set decisively in the present day – the costumes and set suggest a time perhaps in the 1950s – there is a universality in the story, an unfortunate timeless in its resonance which means that its temporal location makes it more powerful – how much we haven’t changed. That these three women survive, that they can make light of their circumstances, is extraordinary, but so too is the possibility that we can bring about change through a conversation, through telling these stories, through making people take notice of these events. Even though my doubts about the theatricality of Cerini’s script remain (I would call it more of a poem than a play), Lewis and her cast and crew, as well as this production’s supporters, have demonstrated that sometimes it takes an extraordinary leap into the unknown, to take a gamble on a play which doesn’t show us a clean or neatly-packaged version of life, and bring it into full-blooded life on Griffin’s tiny stage. I sincerely hope this play brings about change – both legislative, social, and creative – as we strive to tell stories that really do matter, that have the power to change our situation, and make our society and world a safer and better place to live and work.

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