The Bleeding Tree is a tough and gritty work, written by Angus Cerini and performed at Sydney Theatre Company, after an award-winning season at Griffin in 2015. Cerini deftly presents a rural homicide as a result of ongoing domestic violence, and in a way that fully exposes the darkness and bleakness of the material without alienating his audience. It’s probably not until seeing this show that you realise just what a breath of fresh air this is. The Bleeding Tree is catchy, fast and important – and it’s also a neat little package, running at seventy-five minutes without interval.
Taking place in an unnamed rural Australian place, The Bleeding Tree tells the story of three women – a mother and her two daughters – who attempt to dispose of the ‘man of the house’ after they retaliate to his abuse and kill him. As we’re made aware of the man’s history of relentless violence and cruelty, it becomes clear, quite humorously, that the women are glad to be rid of him. As the play goes on and more of their history is uncovered, we find ourselves supporting this act of brutal revenge.
Critically, the story features the response of the community, all of whom turned a blind eye when the man of the house was alive and abusive, and turn a blind eye now that the women have ended him. Cerini’s script presents his audience with the all-too-common issue that, due to domestic violence ordinarily happening within the privacy of one’s home, the victims are often isolated and unable to seek assistance. The culture of silence, that ignores or regards the issue as “someone else’s business”, is what allows domestic violence to continue. This idea is made clearer by the fact that the entirety of the play takes place inside the women’s home. Visitors to the home are doubled by the women, which is a cunning device used to demonstrate the tension between the victims and the people living outside their four walls.
There’s something deeply satisfying in the rhythmic and stylised dialogue. It’s poetical and maintains a surging drive, replete with gruesome imagery of the rotting corpse and animals eating the entrails. In effect, the language is quite beautiful, uttered with a joy at the prospect that the man-of-the-house is dead and his reign of terror over. Often, intense lines will land with such accuracy that I am inclined to look at the auditorium about me and watch audience-members scrunch up their face; half-amused, half-disgusted! Where the emotive language used sits at the heart of this play, Cerini should be applauded for maintaining a tight structure. It’s decadent due to its language but it could never be accused of being over-indulgent, with thanks to its bite-size, polished build.
The wonder of this show is achieved by its talented company; the same who wowed Sydney the first time at Griffin in 2015. This show, by the way, is the winner of three Helpmann Awards: Best Play, Best Director and Best Female Actor (Paula Arundell). The casting is perfect. Paula Arundell is a performer in her prime, and takes this role on with such gusto and individuality that you might believe it was written for her. It’s a delight to watch her at work in this intimate setting. Airlie Dodds is blessed with a conflicted character, and it’s breathtaking to watch as she struggles with the morality of the story. Shari Sebbens is also excellent, possessed of perfect comic timing and a nuanced performance; it is punchy, endearing and hilarious. The Bleeding Tree is effectively an ensemble piece, and all three actors carry that with a captivating confidence. The design team have managed to support the talent with a striking set – a gothic vibe, but intrinsically bucolic and rural. The set smacks of country home due to its pastel colour scheme and flowered wall paper. It’s a subtle stroke of genius, by designer Renee Mulder. This is assisted by the exceptional sound design, which locates us instantly in the stinging heat of rural Australia. Director Lee Lewis should be proud of the subtle brilliance this piece boasts in production value.
If it wasn’t your business then, it’s not your business now. Hypocrisy is ugly. And for all the quirkiness that The Bleeding Tree adopts to address this issue, it’s still impossible to ignore this blunt message. That I could feel embarrassed by the measly efforts of the community to support the women only after the the abuser had been killed, forces me to consider how insidious this ignorance is. Cerini has written an important play about domestic violence and the need to bring it into the light, but he has done so in a way that ensures one leaves the theatre with a smile on their face. Bizarre, right? In case you can’t tell, I loved it.