Review: The Bleeding Tree at Arts Centre Melbourne

Richard Watts

Angus Cerini’s award-winning play is magnificent, horrific and remarkable.
Review: The Bleeding Tree at Arts Centre Melbourne

Photo credit: Brett Boardman

A gunshot rings out in the theatre. It is shockingly loud. Steve Toulmin’s sound design instantly asserts itself with a high-pitched whine, like a ringing in our ears, as lights come up achingly slowly on a trio of women – three furies – who have just committed an eminently justifiable murder.

They stand on a stage designed by Renée Mulder that’s all steep angles and uneven slabs, as if the fault lines that fractured this family home have wrenched and raised and separated the carpeted floor like so much geological strata.  

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Pain has made this home its own, the staging tells us. Violence dwells here, and has done for many years.

Angus Cerini’s award-winning The Bleeding Tree was first produced by Griffin Theatre Company in 2015, and went on to win the Helpmann Award for Best Play the following year. It was also honoured with Helpmann Awards for Best Director (Lee Lewis, Griffin’s Artistic Director) and Best Female Actor (Paula Arundell, who plays the unnamed matriarch of this wounded family). It’s easy to see why.

Cerini’s brutally confronting yet blackly comic exploration of domestic abuse and its aftermath, is a compelling piece of theatre, while Lewis’ exquisite direction ensures the play’s tonal shifts, from horror to humour and back again, never jar. And as the woman whose fatal shot has freed her and her daughters from their monstrous patriarch, Arundell burns white hot with rage and furious intensity.

Stepping into roles originated by Airlie Dodds and Shari Sebbens, Brenna Harding and Sophie Ross play sisters whose experiences at their father’s hands generate a genuinely shocking frisson. Their participation in his execution both delights and disturbs as the play explores the aftermath of violence – guilt, hope, reverie, complicity – via Cerini’s compelling prose.

There are visceral descriptions of bloodshed and decay, of stinking corruption and scavengers at work, but first, before cover stories can be invented and plans made for the future, the bastard’s body needs to be disposed of.

That’s when old Mister Jones, who’s heard a gunshot, comes knocking. Tension ratchets up as he enters the house and characters shift and blur, Cerini’s brutal, urgent poetics allowing actors to share their roles, speaking for one another, as one another, as if sharing the same urgent and vengeful spirit.

It’s at this point in proceedings, as Mister Jones’ visit is followed in the coming days by other neighbours, other townsfolk, that Cerini’s intentions become clear. Neighbours knew of the violence that haunted this home, of the crimes committed, but took no action. It’s only now, suspecting foul play, that they intercede. How many of us have done the same, Cerini seems to be asking.

The Bleeding Tree doesn’t shy away from ugliness and horror, but by exploring its ideas through grotesque comedy as well as dramatic intensity, the play packs a punch that’s hard to imagine would have landed so successfully had it aimed for a more familiar realism.

Intense, compelling and disturbing, this short Melbourne season of The Bleeding Tree is unhesitatingly recommended.

4 ½ stars: ★★★★☆

Arts Centre Melbourne presents Griffin Theatre Company’s
The Bleeding Tree
By Angus Cerini
Directed by Lee Lewis
Lighting Designer: Verity Hampson
Designer: Renée Mulder
Composer: Steve Toulmin
Cast: Paula Arundell, Brenna Harding, Sophie Ross

Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
16-19 May 2018

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre, on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging, and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

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