There’s revenge. Served hot from anger. There’s revenge served in cold measure. Then there’s revenge served neither hot nor especially cold. We call it justice. I’ve heard this play being described in various places as a dark comedy, a murder ballad, a riff on ancient myths, and a performance poem. It’s all those things. Bleeding clever clogs Cerini.
(Reading Plays Series #4)
The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini is a sharp little play that won the Griffin Award in 2014, and the NSW Premier’s Award, and the production won a three Helpmann Awards, and the Sydney Theatre Company is currently showing a production of it. So, you get the picture here— it has been noticed. A lot.
And rightly so.
It’s a grim tale told by just three female characters, a mother and two daughters, dragging us by the hair through the slippery events following the brisk and brutal murder of the man of the house.
“Girls, I think your father’s dead. I knocked his knees out. I conked his head. I shot that house clown in the neck.”
Nasty. But the bloke had it coming. And that’s quite the point. A violent drunk who has terrorised and brutalised the family for years on end, had it coming. Pay day. And given the current mood in this country regarding relentless domestic violence against women, it’s hard for audiences to blame these women for taking bloody but affirmative action. The three women are more than relieved, they permit themselves to gloat, ironically using language and tactics taught to them by their tormentor to celebrate. It’s a ding-dong bastard’s dead fest.
Then there’s a knock on the door. The neighbour. Holy Crap.
What then starts as quite a clumsy comedic version of Hitchcock’s murder thriller Rope as the three women converse with the neighbour while desperately hiding a dead body, turns very quickly into a sinister complicity. Seems the neighbour hated that clown too.
And so it goes. From strength to strength, as the women decide on a fitting place to dispose of the corpse—hanging it in the backyard tree for nature to ravage it over time. Which indeed seems cruel and unusual and possibly stupid considering the author even tells us they have a perfectly good piggery out the back and we all know pigs will deftly make good on a cadaver you’re wanting to quietly rid yourself of. But the ladies want to make a statement here, let them have at it. It could all go terribly wrong, but that’s the stuff of drama, raise the stakes to the max, and hoist the bugger up onto the bleeding tree it is.
But it seems they had no need to truly worry about, having done the deed, proudly displaying the gruesome results on the tree near the chook yard. As the story progresses, and the corpse disintegrates, the women come to understand the community has got their back. A great deal of blind eye is going on.
It’s a ripping tale. Simple. Very directly revealing the nature of violence. Speaking volumes about how our community might respond to violence and be complicit in it. Curly moral questions, it’s all there.
The style is killer. Three actors. The lines are never allocated but always understood. Extra characters never appear but their presence is absolute. Blunt statements. Nothing verbose. Often tripping around in word play and rhyme. Almost Doctor Suess and asinine. Vicious also. In part, it reminded me of Savages, but the layout and style take it one step further; paring down the conventions until really there is only the spoken text. Actors describe actions on stage, or more often the actions of unseen people on stage, and put words into the mouth of other characters. They also can describe the thoughts and reasoning of characters other than themselves. Sound like a schmozzle? It truly isn’t. It reads like a poem. On stage, I’ll wager it sounds like a Japanese Rakugo tale, a story-telling by one seated actor.
What an unusual piece! I wish I had enough money to zip down to Sydney to see it at the STC.
My only negative comment is the tendency of urban writers when writing rural plays to make the characters sound dimwitted and rough, as if all of them were the products of poor education, unspeakable hardship and generations of incest. Sometimes I feel like smacking urban writers on the chops for assuming rural people are intellectually inferior and squalid. I note that Cerini is a metropolitan writer, whose various bios give no indication of him having spent time in the bush or even in a rural town. I could be wrong but it seems he has written out of known stereotypes and thin-on-the-ground experience. The characters speak like Australian stereotypes from stories set in the 1950s—like a riff on Smiley gets A Gun, all Chips Rafferty and Whacky-doo. I come across this all the time—urban writers who assume non-metropolitan people speak and act talk like buck-toothed morons who have never had the benefit of any modern convenience. This dumbing down is so patronising and cliched. It is a poor and lazy writer trope to put dumb-ass country folk on the stage for the metro audiences to gawk at.
How much more powerful it might have been to make these three country women educated, middle class, relatively well off and in circumstances where one would not expect to see domestic violence—living on a well-to-do farm…they do exist, you know. Because we all know domestic violence is not limited to the dumb hillbillies on their dumb hillbilly farms. And, believe it or not, not all people who own small farms outside of rural townships are poor and run down. Not all alcoholics are rural hicks. Not all alcoholics are living in squalor.
Ok, one more negative comment….I lied.
As the story progressed, and the body of the husband was grotesquely rotting away for all to witness, I thought I sensed for a few seconds in the text that the “violence begets violence” factor might have been at play. I wondered whether Clever Clogs Cerini was going to get even cleverer and allow at least the wife, if not all three of them, to manifest the consequences of having been so violent. Perhaps a touch of madness. A touch of the whole family disintegrating with the body because they had been poisoned by it. Not overstated, but in some way that the three women had been dragged down by the death.
But no. The tale remained simple. Three women, ruthless and without regret, whack a bad man and get away with it. Fair enough.
*Bleeding tree, original image by mayhem7887, http://s293.photobucket.com/albums/mm64/mayhem7887/?action=view¤t=368.jpg¤ttag=Tree