Playwright Angela Betzien taps into our fears about the Australian bush and our babies in a tale of missing teens
In Angela Betzien’s new play The Hanging, Iris (Ashleigh Cummings) is a potent, wary 14-year-old. After being reported missing along with two close friends, she stumbles into a police station in regional Victoria – terrified, covered in scratches, alone. She claims to have no memory of the past couple of days, and doesn’t know where her friends are.
Detective Flint (Luke Carroll) brings Iris to one of her family’s properties for gentle questioning. Iris is agitated, and isn’t much soothed from the arrival of her nominated ‘support person’ – Ms Corrossi (Genevieve Lemon), her English teacher at Maidstone Girls, a prestigious boarding school. And from here, in a room in a house Iris refers to merely as “my father’s,” an entire world of secrets grows.
The Hanging isn’t interested solely in the fate of the two other girls and Iris’s ability to find her way home; rather, it is interested in why the trio went missing in the first place. And why and how Iris came to be desperately close to them, in that way only teenage girls can be. And how girls, and women, can disappear in a hundred different ways.
It would be easy to call the play a crime thriller in the Australian Gothic tradition, which is Betzien’s wheelhouse, but this play is bigger than that, more thoughtful.
It’s a play that wants to explore the inherently gothic tragedy of feminine becoming.
Ms Corrossi is an eloquent explicator of the cruelty of a society where women, at a certain age, begin to disappear from public consciousness, and she’s struggling with this in her own life – her vulnerability here is apparent. Iris, and her friends, are at an age where their opinions or truths are rarely trusted; they are also readily and uncomfortably sexually objectified. These issues intersect beautifully within the play as stories about secret literature clubs and mysterious summertime events start to emerge under Flint’s careful questioning.
The darkly lush (even romantic) video of bushland and three girls disappearing into it (by David Bergman) that begins the play, and reoccurs throughout, owes something in its mood to Peter Weir’s film adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock (Ms Corrossi even brings up the novel) but Betzien’s play is really just a spiritual relative to the story, relishing in a similar eerie beauty but, since the real story of the crime appears to be distressingly more mundane, The Hanging ends up much more sinister – and more political – than Hanging Rock.
The systemic, causally multifaceted exploitation of women hangs all over this play, presenting art, literature, and fantasy as dreadfully insufficient outlets for women and girls to become fully realised individuals, safe from a world that casts them as powerless within their own narratives. It does this by giving us strongly drawn female characters who grapple with their own places in the world. Lemon and Cummings give outstanding performances – Lemon is brittle and soulful in a way we don’t offen see (she tends to be cast as a tragicomic, or just comic figure); Cummings is a disarmingly honest 14 – stormy, intelligent, and a little lost.
Betzien’s gorgeous script, in the hands of director Sarah Goodes, is a gripping – and mesmerising – thriller. She employs a deft, ever-present tension during each scene, building a grim sense of foreboding, broken by momentary splashes of beauty in Iris’s dreamy explanation of her friendships, or Ms Corrossi’s poetic defence of her own actions.
Goodes stretches Betzien’s narrative to expand Flint’s interrogation of Iris into a broader interrogation of the various prisons women are shuttled into: Iris’s private, highly regulated school; Ms Corrossi’s quiet, lonely home where she cares for her mother; the more conceptual prisons where women are judged harshly for opinions and difference, or silenced for speaking unpleasant truths.
There are not many plays on main stages devoted to women and their social erasure, and even fewer thrillers that care more about the women who are victims in the story than they do the detective on the case. The Hanging is special for these reasons, but also for Betzien’s lyrical, irresistible script, its absorbing mystery, and its compelling performances. A must-see.