I vividly recall my first reading of Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree. There were no character names or descriptions – just one bald sentence: Three women play a mother and her two daughters. No indication of who was speaking which line, no stage directions – just that the action occurred in a farmhouse out of town. I was going to have to work if I wanted to engage with this play.
Then I read the opening line.
With a bullet through your neck, numbskull of yours never looked so fine.
Clearly, I was not in some nostalgic, rural fantasia with a heroine in floral seersucker baking scones and looking longingly into a sunset. No. I’d been plunged into an adrenaline-charged murder scene. The rage of the downtrodden erupted, as Cerini’s Furies hurled poetic profanities into the dusty air of their bush purgatory.
Before I’d read five pages, I was bolt upright, shoulders tensed and breath held, marvelling at the brutal linguistic beauty and dark humour being voiced by three female characters whose like I’d never seen on a stage before. I was pedalling fast, trying to make sense of what had occurred, while also terrified for what was to come.
I was reading the play because I was a judge for the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for drama. Judging plays on literary merit can be fraught – arguably more so than for any form except screenplays. Theatre scripts are not written to be enjoyed alone with a cup of tea, savouring an elegant phrase or re-reading a particular paragraph. They are crafted for collaboration and exist in three dimensions. Designed to live outside the body and head of both writer and reader, they are experienced in a constant forward motion, not allowing audiences an opportunity to see an action again or re-hear a phrase, unless for dramatic effect.
That’s the major consideration of the literary merit of a script. Is it dramatic?
Sounds simple enough, but in practice, that can mean many things, particularly when the form is evolving constantly, encompassing everything from monologues to epics, but also the direct-from-life interviews of verbatim theatre, new technologies that blur the lines of what makes a text, the adaptation and reworking of classics, and group-created work.
Angus Cerini challenges many conventional ideas of literary worth in The Bleeding Tree. He throws away more than stage directions, instead giving us a non-naturalistic re-telling of events. It’s reportage, but in the present tense. It looks, on the page, like a tripartite poem or song. It deliberately employs ugliness, revelling in crudity and the snot and blood and shit that make up the tormented women’s vocabulary. Lyricism and loveliness have no place in this world. The women’s speech pattern is all rushed sallies and jabbing overlaps; panicked attempts to understand the ramifications of their actions and cope with the new dangers that keep presenting.
Shakes still taking us, every little bit sometimes comes up choking us.
These are victims who have, in the heat of a single moment, loosed themselves on their tormentor. Pushed too far for too long, they’ve become executioners. Fear turns to euphoria and back to fear. In Cerini’s rhythmic and idiomatic dialogue, the tale morphs at breakneck speed. It is unflinchingly tough and yet blackly hilarious – and we need those laughs to release our distress.
Quickly, so quickly, the promise of freedom wafts into the air, rising from the inert body of Daddy numbskull.
Shit we really killed him.
Here we have no Daddy-Long-Legs, the anonymous gentleman of children’s literature who offered kindness and affection to an orphan girl. No, this was a sick and strange old man, whose only exchanges with his family have been dismissive, brutal, abusive and violent.
A man like the best man ever if all you got to go on is a turd.
And now he lies dead at their feet. Mother and daughters display no remorse for their grisly actions. There is no wringing of hands or wishing things otherwise. There is relish and there is relief.
Nothing wrong with glad.
And I was right there with them, bound to them by empathy. I too was glad he was dead. He deserved it, after all.
The twisted beauty and terror of the tale had revealed me to myself as someone who could condone violence. I didn’t stop to ask whether the dead man had a bleak back story of his own. I simply wanted revenge. “An eye for an eye” thrummed in my ears as rats began to eat at his corpse.
Eating his soul. How’s that for karma eh girls? Ha!
The Bleeding Tree asks us to consider the effects of sustained abuse. I was shocked and dismayed at my response. I abhor the death penalty and believe in the justice system, that a society must seek to understand cause, rather than acting only on effect. How, then, could I celebrate this murder?
The complicity I felt with the women was pleasurable but I couldn’t deny that there was shame attached to it too. I found myself in the company of their neighbours and postman, who all make a conscious, deliberate decision to ignore the murder – in exactly the same way they have chosen for years to ignore the abuse the victim rained down on his family.
We all know what he done, all that he is, we got your back love, that’s just how it is.
See no evil. Speak no evil. Hear no evil.
Cerini’s great achievement is that the darkness and ambiguity that exists in his morality tale, is simultaneously called up in his audience – this audience, at least. The lure of his song of retribution was so strong that my first response was to join in the chorus.
– Steel eyes bore down to where the guilt shines and curdles.
– Gulp it down girl. Gulp it down good. This story is told now, is you understood?
I understood, alright – yet even as the story grew more macabre, the action more nauseating, I didn’t wish for another outcome.
The trio’s extended shriek of pain, delivered in bluntly poetic vernacular, rubs our noses in the reality of their grim days. These women have no connection to theatre – they certainly wouldn’t look for solace to Shakespeare or Seneca, Lawler or Gow – yet they’ve reared up and insisted on being heard, being visible.
And why shouldn’t they string up a villain? If Cornwall, who has no history of being abused or violated, can blind the innocent Gloucester, then surely these three can kill a tyrant? They certainly have cause…
Perhaps that is the most terrifying aspect of the play. We witness how prolonged violence and neglect have turned the women into avengers, capable of the most repugnant actions. Bred in abuse, groomed by it, they have been trained for just this moment. And in bearing witness to their story and their behaviour, I became a creature of rash, emotive judgment, condoning the blood-letting. And if I defend their actions, just as the other characters in the play do, then am I also likely to be silent about abuse, as they had been all those years?
Violence. Silence. Complicity.
Cerini makes it impossible to look away from his women. Ironically, what he exposes is the very culture of looking away.
He is not making such work in a vacuum. Recently, Leah Purcell’s extraordinary re-mythologising of The Drover’s Wife (Belvoir, 2016) gave us another woman in an outback hell, preyed on by a series of men. She too exacts revenge, refusing to lie down and take what has been repeatedly meted out to her. She too will walk into an uncertain future, no longer defined by her interactions with violent men.
In Patricia Cornelius’ terrifying play Shit (Sydney Festival, 2017), we meet three young urban women who exist in margins and shadows. Their sole motivation is survival in a world that does not want them. When one expresses a wish for a child, the others are appalled. Why would you want to care for another life? The results of neglect by a system that sees these women as expendable is heartbreaking, told in language that shocks with its crudity, even as it distresses and, yes, amuses.
These plays have emerged in close proximity to one another, demanding we confront our darkness. They unashamedly proclaim that the cycle of domestic violence continues long after bruises have healed and scars have formed on wounds. And all of them ask – how are we complicit? Perhaps it is only by staring down such stories that we can see our blindness – and hear our silence.
I believe The Bleeding Tree will be long-lived. My fervent hope is that, in time, it will be performed not because it is holding up a mirror to present circumstances, but rather, for its darkly beautiful, savagely poetic, language; its unique and compelling characters; its compact yet epic form; its images that are as haunting as any nightmare – and for the power of its call to our better, and our darker, selves.
This essay was first published in the program for The Bleeding Tree.