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Jordan Cowan, The Dark Room Jordan Cowan, The Dark Room
photo Shane Reid
In The Dark Room, a horror story within a horror story, Angela Betzien reaches deeply into the heart of regional Australia to produce a savage, gothic thesis on socioeconomic disadvantage engendered by decades of institutional neglect and misapprehension. The overt racism of Edmund Barton’s White Australia Policy having given way to the quietly virulent injustices of Aboriginal deaths in custody and the Intervention, Betzien positions both white and black Australians as victims of a broken but mostly unregarded system, children as its most grievous casualties.

The child at the centre of Betzien’s story, which is set entirely in a squalid Northern Territory motel room, is Grace (Jordan Cowan), a damaged and dangerous teenager. In a chilling symbol of her invisibility, she enters the room for the first time, accompanied by her guardian Anni (Tamara Lee), wearing a dark cloth bag on her head. Only her eyes are visible, peering shrunkenly and often glisteningly through badly cut holes. They are eyes that have seen something of which Grace cannot yet speak, and the details of which Betzien only gradually leaks through short, fraught scenes of increasing claustrophobia and nightmarish fragmentation.

The room, designed with striking attention to detail by Kathryn Sproul, becomes a physical and temporal crossover point between Grace’s story and those of previous and future occupants, all of whom are connected to a second individual tragedy, that of Indigenous boy Joseph (Taro Miller-Koncz). Joseph’s presence in the play is mostly incorporeal, appearing fleetingly and frighteningly in technically superb reveals within the motel room’s mirrors (lighting Mark Pennington). Initially difficult to read on account of the play’s shifts in time—a memory, a foreshadowing, a product of Grace’s discontinuous psychic space?—these unsettling apparitions build to a broader significance, a darkly playful rendering of the idea of a haunting, of the immediacy of the past and its still uncorrected wrongs. (From Betzien’s program notes: “Justice will only come when we as a society acknowledge what the dead have suffered…”)

Director David Mealor arguably makes too much of the script’s oblique horror movie appropriations (the sound design, too, by Quentin Grant, goes a bit too far down the same road with its clichéd forays into reversed playback) but the strength of Betzien’s message remains undiluted by this production’s occasional stylistic excesses. Cowan gives a memorable performance as Grace, genuinely disturbing in its intensity and impressive in its proximity to the truthfulness of the lives of our young who have been given too little, and who have seen too much.

By the end of The Dark Room, we too may feel we have borne witness to too much. There is, both within the play’s uncertain dénouement and the disorienting blackouts which periodically descend throughout the 90 minutes, a gut-wrenching sense of the unendingness of cycles of destitution and disempowerment that are the silent shame of this country. The great strength of Mealor’s direction is that Betzien’s motel room feels as inescapable to us as it surely must do to Grace. In reality, those of us fortunate enough to be able to can—and do—escape it every day, willingly protecting ourselves from the horrors within even as successive parliaments fail to protect those for whom the door remains firmly shut.


Flying Penguin Productions with State Theatre Company of South Australia & Holden Street Theatres, The Dark Room, writer Angela Betzien, director David Mealor, Holden Street Theatres, Adelaide, September 14-28

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 36

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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