A bed. A mini fridge. A closet. A bathroom door. The necessities of a cheap motel are boxed into a claustrophobic chipboard room. Then a whooshing sound. Darkness. When the lights come back on, a trembling girl with a make-shift bag on her head is nudged gently into the room. Six souls come and go. As their stories start to weave together, their lives intertwined, the room starts to become as dark as the title promises.
When we think of Australia, I think I speak for most when I say we think of long sandy beaches, of coral reefs, surfers, the white teeth of the Sydney opera house and the hot orange sands of miles and miles of empty desert. This tale concerns a side of Australia we think of less frequently, the Northern territories, where tensions between the aboriginal population and the ‘occupiers’, still boil. The death of a youth in a small, isolated town sees the pressure cooker of tensions boil over and calls into question the collective responsibility of a nation. Just who’s responsibility is it to love the unloved, to protect the unprotected?
Every performance in this nerve-shattering piece of theatre is brave. Angela Betxien’s female characters are especially well drawn, as fierce individuals, brimming with love and hurt and anger. It is not subtle from Angela Betzien’s writing that she doesn’t seems to like the Australian authorities or cops a great deal, but every character, however unlikable, whatever they have done, has moments of love, or of clarity that could make them redeemable. Beautiful, terrible moments where their inner conflicts breach the surface.
Annabel Smith stands outs as Grace, a girl without a home and a troubled past. Grace, who is suffering from PTSD among other disorders (which she names with a derisive sneer) is a difficult girl to get to know. Smith snaps from playful to tearful, from murderous to suicidal, with such dynamism it’s unnerving yet Smith skillfully conveys a character who’s fitful nature seems impossible to pin down.
Anni, her big-hearted care worker, is at the mercy of the state and her own emotions. Katy Brittain’s delightfully wry smile does ease the tension in places, but even then her eyes are weighed down by the weight of Anni’s heavy-hearted responsibilities.
Fiona Skinner garners sympathy for Emma, former school teacher and police officer’s wife. In the wrong hands she could have been drawn as a hysterical pregnant-women but instead handles the emotional demands of her role in a mature and relateable way. As the play edges towards it’s climax, her ominous words “we should never have come here”, hang over the piece like an invisible fog.
Few contemporary Australian plays reach these shores and though the underlying desire in Betzien’s characters is to high-tail it out of their pressure-cooker town, I am keen to see more. Producer Shaelee Rooke, an Australian native herself, is the name to watch, particularly if director Audrey Sheffield is on board again. Together they are a team capable of illuminating work that captures the light and shade of that vast and ancient island on the other side of the world. Far away, and yet not so far removed from our little island over here.
Image credit: Alex Brenner, Image Source: The Stage.