The Hanging is a new work by award-winning Australian playwright Angela Betzien. What is it about her writing that attracts you as a director?
She has this unique style, almost Gothic. She likes to deal with mystery and unknown elements and the ways in which mystery can exist. And that's what she's done in The Hanging.
The power of the play is that it puts two great mysteries together – adolescent girls and the Australian outback. In their shared haunting, unknowable and slightly dangerous way. There are echoes of films like The Virgin Suicides, and we've talked a lot about Heavenly Creatures in terms of how two people can create an imaginative realm to disappear into.
The thing that excites me about this mystery – in a similar way to how Joanna Murray-Smith's Switzerland operated – is that you don't want to completely know what the answer is. And you don't want the audience to completely know what it is either. So, you have to create a world in which you believe these people and you're with these people, but there are still some dark corners of it that you can only feel. Dark corners that are not fully articulated or fully formed. I think it takes a really good writer to be able to achieve that.
Like those earlier works you mentioned, The Hanging explores the internal world of adolescent girls. What does it dig up?
It's about transformation. There's something about that age for all girls (and boys); you disappear into a cocoon and emerge at the end an adult. It's an enormous physical transformation but also an emotional and, you could say, spiritual transformation as well.
Because the space within that cocoon is so unknown, it's a fascinating time, a fascinating place. But adults should really keep out, even though I think the temptation for some adults to enter into it is really strong. That's a captivating tension.
Virginia Woolf says in Orlando that real romantic power is quite often rooted in intense shyness. So, because teenagers have this huge sexual transformation going on and adults know what's happening – even if the teenager doesn't necessarily – it becomes incredibly powerful. At the core of it, many are unaware of their power, so while teenagers might play up the facade of knowingness, they don’t necessarily know exactly what is going on, so it becomes a very dangerous place for adults to navigate and they really should leave it well alone! But I think a lot of our aesthetics and our sense of beauty is derived from this and therefore drawn to it because it is so mysterious and pure, in a way. You see this in the role of the teacher in The Hanging.
There's this history in Australian culture of stories of disappearance. Why do you think we have this ongoing obsession?
I remember going up to Far North Queensland, into the Laura reserve and thinking, ‘this place is incredible, it feels haunted’. You stand up in the caves there and look out at miles of ghostly trees you feel you could disappear into. Getting lost anywhere is unnerving, but the landscape is so ancient here, so weathered and prehistoric. It feels like an unforgiving, unknowable place that has some mystery or secret at the centre of it, so I think it keeps inspiring stories of disappearance because maybe we still don’t really understand it. I don’t think it’s the same for the Indigenous people – the land is part of who they are – so I don’t think it holds that kind of fear for them.
The Hanging, 28 Jul – 10 Sep 2016, Wharf 1 Theatre