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Shari Sebbens, Airlie Dodds, Paula Arundell, The Bleeding Tree, Griffin Theatre Shari Sebbens, Airlie Dodds, Paula Arundell, The Bleeding Tree, Griffin Theatre
photo Brett Boardman
Although Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree and Andrew Upton’s The Present (after Chekhov’s Platonov) each has something important to say about families, relationships and violence (of various kinds), their gripping productions also excited questions about design, language, context and consistency of vision at a time when a multitude of influences weigh on theatre, often resulting in a cut-and-paste aesthetic, a legacy of undigested postmodernism. The works shared a tremendous sense of immediacy, of engaging with the flux of the moment, the turbulent confluence of past and future.

The Bleeding Tree

Renee Mulder’s design for director Lee Lewis’ premiere of Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree yields one of those sets which is sculpturally interesting in itself, even before it’s animated by actors. From upstage in The Stables a series of slanted wedges fans out, dipping sharply to the floor in an evocation of the vertiginous ridges of an abstracted, unaccommodating landscape. But the harsh impression is softened by the surface with its floral patterning of a kind found on the frocks and wallpaper of bygone generations, now faded and inexpressive. The same backward glance is ‘heard’ pre-show in Doris Day singing, “Everybody loves a lover” until interrupted by a shattering blast, its long reverberation felt throughout a sustained total blackout plunging us into a traumatised present.

As the dark lifts, a mother and two daughters living out the aftershock of having killed their violent husband and father ride waves of disbelief, victorious delight, defiant re-enactment, guilt and fear of being caught. Their emotional and moral uneasiness is heightened by having to navigate the steep landscape, temporarily alleviated by standing or sitting in tableaux-like clusters as episodes unfold. These sharply focus our attention on the play’s stream of urgent, short-breathed utterances—a casual stichomythia, a form found in Ancient Greek and Roman drama entailing the alternating delivery between characters of single lines, often of similar length and rhyming or half-rhyming. Cerini uses the device to great effect, his language rooted in the idiomatic English of uneducated speakers who are nonetheless capable of insight and the poetry the form encourages. It also allows for different kinds of telling with quick alternations between first person responses (singular or plural: “Shakes still taking us, every little bit comes up choking us”), collective narration (the present tense account of the killing) and third person observations (the girls watch a sympathetic neighbour, Mr Jones, pretend that he can’t see the dead man’s foot: “He just kicked it.” “Looks back around face gone changed.” “A snarl and a sneer as clear as the day”). In the same vein, the words of visiting neighbours and a postman-cum-policeman are spoken by the women while the lugging and hanging of the body, not mimed, is intensely felt in voices and bodies.

The storytelling framework resonates with thriller, fairy tale, fable, folksong, liturgy (“The father lord our master.” “His pecked at cadaver.” “Blessed be thy name.” ”You dead useless lump, dead as the dead hereafter.”) and gothic goulishness (“Say all ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but holy hell never mentioned no rats but. Oh that’s a delicious bloody prize for the beatings and the show. Eaten from the inside out a marvellous bloody show”). The play’s storyline too, though moment by moment suspensefully unpredictable, resolves to a satisfying fable-like conclusion.

While saying much about domestic violence and about communities that tolerate it as long as ‘it’s not their business,’ The Bleeding Tree envisages a small rural community which comes onside with sympathy, apple pie and money—if only when the perpetrator has been killed—but also with the most unexpected advice for the women, at once comic, vicious and idiosyncratically moral. While hardly a model of law abidance it nonetheless poetically celebrates both the possibility of community unanimity against domestic violence and the resilience of its survivors, here in a mix of vengefulness and a sense of regeneration from the mother: ”Boil up his bones. Gonna make stock from his bones. I’m gonna make me a rose garden, the best he never seen….That dead hole in his head can stare back at me in every blossom…”

Paula Arundell as the mother and Shari Sebbens and Airlie Dodds are a perfect ensemble, totally mastering and subtly voicing Cerini’s challenging ‘score,’ realising its poetry, black humour and emotional depths. Lee Lewis’ direction underpins these with semi-tableaux staging on Mulder’s admirable set and with a momentum that matches the panicky, tense stichomythia but also allows for moments of interiority for the mother, when the rhythm slows.

The sisters observe their mother addressing her dead husband: “Gone mad as can be.” “Nah I reckon just having a well-earned dreaming reverie.” The Bleeding Tree is a wonderfully haunting dream play of the very darkest feel-good variety.

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Marshall Napier, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Present Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Marshall Napier, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Present
photo © Lisa Tomasetti
The Present

Alice Babidge’s set design for The Present (Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Chekhov’s sprawling first play Platonov, directed by John Crowley) is of a characterless modern dacha without traditional open timber-work, architectural decoration or garden in flower, just a few blades of grass. Nor do set or lighting suggest summer heat. It’s as if beauty and warmth have been expunged. This is the Russia of the 1990s, the era of ‘wild west capitalism’— prior to the current state capitalism—when fortunes were made as government industries were sold off to the new private sector (often opportunistic old guard communists) or simply appropriated by means unfair and foul. Given that the property has been inherited by Anna (Cate Blanchett), whose late husband was an old communist general, and that she’s likely to lose it, it’s odd that the design doesn’t evoke a sense of belonging and history; rather the house, inside and out, looks like the kind that might reflect the taste of the new oligarchs. There are other oddities: the pronounced upper class Anglo accents of the powerful men courting Anna and the deployment of songs by the Clash and Joy Division. In my younger years, productions of Chekhov often suggested nothing less than dysfunctional English afternoon tea parties. Not so here, but still British enough to irritate. The Present gives us post-Perestroika Russia—a collapsing Soviet empire nicely matching the crumbling Tsarist state that is the world of Chekhov’s plays—but with the most casual consistency.

Fortunately, Upton’s adaptation, the performances and John Crowley’s direction add up to an engrossing Chekhovian experience with all, and more, of the anticipated ennui, sexual tensions, frustrated ambitions, thwarted idealism, wry humour and potential for violence. Upton’s language, adroitly witty, bitter, blunt and thoughtful by rapid turns, is idiomatic (“He fucked you too? A trifecta!”) largely without being specifically Australian. There are marvels of distillation and restructuring, most strikingly the series of encounters in late night mist between the drunken Mikhail (Richard Roxburgh) after a disastrous birthday party for Ana’s 40th. The victims of his womanising and disloyalties manifest like punishing ghosts, but Mikhail persists in enacting cruelties and delivering the kind of idealistic advice he is unable to apply to himself. An emotionally demanding sequence has the naïve Sergei (Chris Ryan), enraged by the seduction of his wife, confront Mikhail but then exit and re-enter, like a rejected dog, desperate for the intimacy he is losing, bewildered and longing for touch: “You have killed me.” Mikhail is unaccommodating.

This scene is one of many that justifies the titling of the play. It’s obvious that dwelling on the past and being anxious about the future (or feeling that there is none worth envisaging) are central to the frustrations of the present in Chekhov. Here, it has a heightened specificity in Mikhail, a man who utterly believes whatever he is doing or saying in the moment. His celebration of his friendships, his admission that his marriage is the great anchor of his life, the conviction with which he urges others to action and the brutal frankness of his cruelties are all utterly believable—but in the present only. Richard Roxburgh, realises each of these moments with utter conviction—charming, seductive, ruthless and, above all, helplessly living in the moment. But frequently there are telling signs of uncertainty, in false starts and hesitancies with which Roxburgh colours Mikhail.

Cate Blanchett brings a different kind of spontaneity to the role of Ana, in love with Mikhail but recognising, despite its relentless push and pull, the impossibility of acting on it. Trapped between the old guard and the new and appalled at “what we have become” she unleashes her pent up anger at the guests gathered around the birthday meal, firing a shotgun and threatening to blow up the building with Semtex. It fails. “Made in Russia!” she wails, but she’s put the batteries in back to front. The build to violence has Ana calculatedly watching the others, slowly reaching into the top of her dress, pulling out her bra and waving it to gain the attention she next seeks with gun and bomb. The action is superbly comic and chillingly suspenseful—Ana’s wicked sense of humour, deep pain and raw anger felt simultaneously, with all the complexity that Blanchett so often realises on stage.

There are other fine performances (including Chris Ryan’s Sergei, Susan Prior’s Sasha—Mikhail’s suffering but finally defiant wife—and Jacqueline Mackenzie’s Sophia—the maddening doctor whose love proves fatal for Mikhail). There have been many adaptations of Platonov and there’ll be more given the free hand its sprawling and often unfocused five hours (cut to three here) offer directors and writers the opportunity to each make their own Chekhov. Andrew Upton now has a very fine one of his own. Next stop, Ivanov at Belvoir. Another early Chekhov ever ripe for adaptation.

Griffin Theatre Company, The Bleeding Tree, writer Angus Cerini, director Lee Lewis, Stables Theatre, 31 July-5 Sept; Sydney Theatre Company, the Present, writer Andrew Upton, after Anton Chekhov’s Platonov, Sydney Theatre, 4 Aug-19 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 30

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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