Jada Alberts' Northern Territory-set family drama comes to Malthouse
CW: this review discusses suicide and self-harm. If you or someone you know needs support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
It opens on an act of unspeakable violence, which we can only see opaquely through the plastic walls of the set, but which we can hear in all its sickening detail. It’s an act of self-harm that happens far too often in every corner of the country, but is worryingly prevalent in Aboriginal communities: suicide by hanging. A girl tries to cut the man down, aided by her increasingly frantic boyfriend, as another sits on stage unmoving. The screams and cries are unbearable, the desperate scramble to cut the rope, but the silence of this young man onstage, his stillness and his silence, capture our attention and become the locus of the play.
This young man is Ruben (Dion Williams); the girl, his sister Adele (Leonie Whyman) and her boyfriend, his best mate Jarrod (Nelson Baker). While they’ll all suffer from waves of grief at the death of their friend and family member Joe, it’s Ruben who suffers most. Just why he’s so wracked with guilt and rage becomes clearer as the play unfolds, but in many ways it needs no explanation; the sheer pressure and weight of growing up as an Indigenous man in a society hell bent on destroying him and the people he loves is reason enough.
Playwright Jada Alberts wrote Brothers Wreck in 2014, and it premiered that year at Sydney’s Belvoir under the direction of Leah Purcell. This Malthouse co-production with State Theatre Company South Australia is designed for a much larger space, which has the potential to tilt the work towards the mythic and lyrical, if only Alberts as director would succumb to it. There are moments where the play seems aching to break out of its own realism – characters tend to soliloquise in highly conscious ways – but Alberts doesn’t really exploit them as well as she might. It’s a pity, because the realism tends to underline the play’s flaws.
Ruben’s sublimated rage has gotten him into trouble in the past, which we can surmise because he’s forced to attend counselling with David (Trevor Jamieson), a former teacher who also functions as a wise elder. The idea of an angry young man being slowly broken by the kind arm of experience is a flat-out cliché, and while the play avoids the worst of this trope, it’s still an over-familiar set-up. When Auntie Petra (Lisa Flanagan) arrives in Darwin after an eight hour drive through torrential rain, and begins to put the family back together through sheer will, evoking the unbreakable bonds of family and community, another cliché – that of the curmudgeonly relative with a heart of gold – threatens to take hold.
What saves the work, cutting against the audience’s expectations and leavening the familiar dramatic scenario, are two things that are really one thing: the totally persuasive, lived-in nature of the performances and the emotional authenticity of the voice. Alberts clearly knows grief and despair precisely analogous to the kind displayed on stage, but she’s also in love with words and their comic potential, and her actors tap directly into both modes with conviction. Williams is terrific in his stage debut, lumbering and tightly wound but also beautifully tender and lyrical. Whyman is fierce and unforced as the sister, and Flanagan is formidable and funny as the belligerently sensible, crossword-loving aunt.
It’s curious that Dale Ferguson has designed both this and the original Belvoir production; his set this time is determinedly non-naturalistic, with its plastic borders and security screens embedded in the walls, floor and ceiling – emblematic of a people living in siege. The set uses rainfall to fine effect, insistent and oppressive but finally cathartic and transformative.
And this is what is ultimately so moving about Brothers Wreck: it is cathartic and it is transformative, of its tropes and the flaws in its writing, mainly due to the urgency of the subject matter and the credibility of its creative team. There’s no polemic in it, but it’s also naturally and searingly political. There’s a whole generation of Indigenous kids dying out there, and this is a cry to call them home. It’s proof too, that universal stories are universal precisely because of their specificity. It represents a great act of compassion towards fellow Indigenous Australians and the purest of offerings to the rest of us.