The Bleeding Tree, by Angus Cerini | Directed by Lee Lewis

Griffin Theatre Company (www.griffintheatre.com.au) | Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney | Until 5 September

Melbourne playwright Angus Cerini won the 17th annual Griffin Award for this compact and poetic play and it is certainly a worthy winner. Set somewhere in rural Australia, The Bleeding Tree deals with the ever-present issue of domestic abuse.

It opens with a mother and her two adolescent daughters standing on a bare stage. The opening lines tell us, in no uncertain terms, that the patriarch of the family is dead and furthermore that these women are happy that this is the case. This dysfunctional dynamic is communicated with almost alternating venom and cool control: “Eat sick in hell.”

Further we ascertain that the father/husband had been shot by his own family and now his body has to be disposed of. It is this ghoulish task that delivers much of the drama.

Lee Lewis’s excellent direction never allows this dark subject, the theatre noir if you like, to become melodramatic. Her direction is intelligently sharp, exploring the predatory nature of the abuse, the subsequent lust for revenge and the collective terror of being caught.

Paula Arundell, Shari Sebbens, and Airlie Dodds are superbly intense in their portrayal of the three women adroitly revealing their strength, intelligence and bravery whilst nimbly negotiating Cerini’s linguistic gymnastics. They collectively capture the frankness and colloquialisms of the Australian vernacular, whilst simultaneously rendering it both natural and stylised, enhancing the play’s gritty poetry.

All three actors deliver disciplined and, given the subject matter, minimalist performances. Their positions on the bare stage are semi-static, yet they manage to fill the intimate theatre with tension, intrigue and a macabre atmosphere of celebration.

Renée Mulder’s simple raised set is bereft. No adornments or props, instead it is a platform with ledges, so every economical move the actors make seems enlarged. Verity Hampson’s hard-edged lighting spears the characters almost like an interrogating beam whilst Steve Toulmin’s effective sound design subtly represents the surrounds.

Ultimately it is the script that is the star of the show — darkly ghoulish in the subject matter of domestic violence, death and decay, it is rendered a thing of beauty by Cereni’s exquisite and insightful prose.

It is also distinctively Australian and stridently advocates for social change. Given that the vast majority of dangerous, abusive and violent behaviour that occurs in the privacy of people’s homes is committed by men against women, this is not just an outstandingly impressive collaborative work of art, but also a vehicle for radical change. A must see!