Generally regarded as Angus Cerini’s best play to date, The bleeding tree (2014) shifts the author’s attention from the inner world of violent and traumatized men to the women and societies that these men impact. Director Ian Michael delivers a raging and harsh new production with cut and repetitive poetry delivered by three women of color who at times appear physically awkward and broken, but are more often fierce and granite in their resolution. Typically arranged in an irregular line with the mother (Karla Hart) slightly forward to the right of the stage, and the daughters (Ebony McGuire and Abbie-Lee Lewis) slightly back to the left. Largely delivering their lines from a supple but steady standing position, this triptych spat their words with searing fury.
Go back to 1996, and I was stage manager on a student production in Melbourne starring scheming newcomer Angus Cerini, who took on the role of a member of the Serbian militia and a rapist. However, he was forced to take a break after he himself was violently attacked on the way home. We were absolutely unprepared for how to handle this and how best to support him, but Angus, to his credit, took this as a catalyst for his subsequent career. Starting with a play on PTSD in the Australian military that he co-wrote with his brother James Cerini (Debriefing, 1999), he specialized in creating superb plays, often monologue-focused, that dealt with injured and dangerous men, many of which he himself performed with angry muscular intensity (Recidivist, 1997, Dennis is dead, 1998, Whore, 1998, Chiper, 2001, Wretched, 2009).
Although due to these precedents, The bleeding tree is quite a different work, a piece of Australian Grand Guignol closer in the tone of Zahra Newman’s spooky theatrical adaptation of Dark Rural Study Wake up in fear (2019). Significantly, in both productions, it is black women who translate the effects of toxic Australian masculinity to us through storytelling and first person storytelling.
Tyler Hill’s design emphasizes that searing rural nightmare feeling, with muted browns and a simple, veranda-like ensemble, whose bursts of yellowing beams from lighting designer Chloe Ogilvie intersect as bars or daggers. Rachael Dease complements the Australian Gothic effect with a varied sound design in which agricultural soundscapes are intermittently cut off or increased to frightening volumes (like when flies swell in the mix). In key moments, any sense of country romance is crushed by loud bursts of noise and deeply felt rumblings.
The characters are not named and the script lacks stage guidelines. Rather, the emphasis is on a unique and cut patois or pidgin. In Cerini’s skilful flights for his brutal verbal mastery and unique conjunctions and imagery, he owes much to so-called âdirty realistâ and âpost-dramaâ British writers such as Sarah Kane (whose poetry of the horrible and the suffering is the stuff of legends) and Edna Walsh Disco pigs (1997). Verbs and pronouns are frequently erased to allow the emergence of graphic images of ugly male threats, fears of discovery and pain, but above all representations of a body in terrible loss.
The exchange is repeated several times in the room:
MOTHER: Girls, I think your father is dead.
GIRL 1: I knocked out her knees.
GIRL 2: I lowered my head.
MOTHER: I shot that house clown in the neck.
The play opens with this event. A tired and seemingly devastated woman rises from the ground and recounts her defiant moment where, after years of pain and suffering, she stood up to the drunken bastard she married and made a gaping hole in her throat with a hunting rifle. “With a bullet in the neck, [that] your numb head has never looked so good, âproclaims the mother.
This community dialect also creates a fragile sense of performative solidarity between the three survivors of abuse. Still stuck in their increasingly foul and corpse-smelling house, yet they all speak the same broken language. This gives them strength and they can use it as a weapon against the man, his corpse, strangers – but also against each other if someone loses their temper.
Before the women can process everything and get rid of the body, one of the three residents comes to visit them. The first is a male drinking partner of “Daddy numbskull”. He kicks the corpse and tells how, if you hang a carcass from a tree here, it would only take three days to disappear. Women follow his advice, and what follows is the appalling chronicle of the deconstitution of man at the hands of the elements, flies, maggots, crows, rats (which tear and spring from inside him), chickens (which eat both the maggots and then his flesh), the foxes (which gnaw him and the chickens), and the avenging dog of a third neighbor who passes by there. This is local policeman and postman Stewart, who saw the husband kick a litter of puppies while the policeman’s own dog was tied up in front of his puppies. Stewart asks his dog to open and devour key body parts and bones so that the final terrible transformation is completed.
It is clear then that the community was aware of the violence and horror that the husband inflicted on the women, and that in turn it is that which means that they are happy to accept the hideous violence that is then. inflicted on him and his body – a process each development of which is offered to us in a baroque chronicle of destruction.
Director Ian Michael as well as critic Alison Croggon see it as a metaphor for the unspoken but well-known massacre of the native Australian inhabitants of this hot and dry country. But there is nothing in the script to solidify such an interpretation, and given that the race of both the male abuser and all of the other characters remains undetermined, it seems overkill.
What this has to say about gender-based domestic violence in Australia is much more compelling. In 2016, Linklater’s Penal Reform International confirmed that the overwhelming majority of women experience violence or murder from their male partners. Women are more likely to feel paralyzed, trapped and therefore to endure years of abuse and sexual assault by their partners.
The bleeding tree, however, in a quite literally grotesque way, suggests that a response to this would be for women to follow the lead of the protagonists and their neighbors by responding in kind with a total act of physical erasure. The real horror is that, despite the graphic language of the bodily disintegrating piece, it’s hard to disagree.
At the conclusion, the women note that the father was so hateful that he attacked the roses, an example of which has always been center stage, dragging spilled dirt and bare roots behind her. The mother therefore offers to boil the rest of his flesh and bones (including the remains of the chickens, flies, maggots and foxes that feasted on him) to make a nourishing broth for a new memorial garden – “like a rural Australian Baba Yaga â, as Croggon puts it. We are left with a hideous counterpoint to the WWI memorial of a typical Australian country town: an array of battered roses that struggle and fail to offer some sense of dignity and redemption to the cruel acts that the Australians inflict on each other and the world.
The bleeding tree, produced by Melanie Julien-Martial, will take place at the Blue Room Theater in Perth until December 11.