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Hugo Weaving and Wayne Blair co-star in this haunting new play marking the return of STC
With masked audience members dotted sparsely throughout the cavernous auditorium of the Roslyn Packer Theatre – our temperatures scanned on entry, ushered quickly through sterile foyers, past rows of strapped down seats – a sense of isolation and otherness already hung in the air before the first syllable of Angus Cerini’s Wonnangatta was ever uttered. This is the first STC production to open since the national shutdown in March, and while this socially distanced new normal for theatregoers may be part of the mandatory safety requirements, it also offers a strangely apt window into the remote and ominous world of this tense mystery play.
With a wink to the ascendant popularity of the true-crime genre, Wonnangatta mines real tragdey: the 1917 double murder of Wonnangatta station manager Jim Barclay and his farm hand John Bamford in the Alpine bushland of Victoria’s high country. However, Cerini’s exploration of this story shares more DNA with Joan Lindsay’s gothic fantasia Picnic at Hanging Rock than a conventional whodunnit. The spectre of Australia’s untamed wildness, and how obliteratingly small we are within it, becomes the undercurrent of this richly written text, which by turns evokes the ocker simplicity of blokey mateship and the philosophical musings of an epic poem.
This may well be the most austere production to grace the Roslyn Packer Theatre in quite some years. After all, STC has a fondness for staging extravagantly technical (not to mention expensive) shows – one of artistic director Kip Williams’ great fortes is marshalling a dizzying number of competing elements into a functioning whole. No such bells and whistles are called for here. The set consists of a single raked crescent platform that emerges from the black, upon which just two actors stand. And yet, how so much is accomplished with so little is what makes this production such a worthy torchbearer for the company's post-Covid rebirth.
Hugo Weaving and Wayne Blair, two titans of their craft, conjure vast landscapes, vividly painting scene after scene with their words as Jacob Nash’s simple set becomes a river bed, a treacherous mountain, a snowy clearing, an arid pasture. Cerini’s experiments with language create a strange, intoxicating dialect; part Bard-esque verse complete with rhyming couplets, part recited memory, part lived-in moment. The two roles – Harry and Riggall, a couple of supply-bringers who stumble into this murder hunt – are almost symbiotic, their words dovetailing, pirouetting, and at times colliding in ways that push and pull them apart. In fact, it’s the eventual wrenching apart of their respective states of mind that propels the story’s unresolved conclusion.
Director Jessica Arthur shows fearless restraint in her largely static treatment. Weaving and Blair – also socially distanced on stage – trade theatrical physicality for sheer intensity of delivery. Not many actors could take a text as dense and percussive as this, in a setting as bare and exposed, and give it such soaring, complex humanity. Arthur’s confidence in allowing her actors to bear the full weight of the storytelling is both a credit to her trust as a theatremaker and her understanding of her collaborators.
The deaths of Barclay and Bamford have never been solved, and Cerini certainly makes no attempt to offer any clues. Indeed, more questions are left unanswered by the play’s enigmatic climax. However, Cerini’s muse isn’t in the mechanics of a homicide but rather the emotional catalysts that drive such violence. In his multi-award-winning work The Bleeding Tree, which STC staged to unanimous plaudits in 2017, the morality of murder is explored via the story of a mother and daughter who kill an abusive father. Wonnangatta goes a step further, by puzzling on the unknown motives of a crime. Harry and Riggall wrack and wreck their minds searching for the rationale behind such senseless death. But much like the unfeeling dangers of the outback, brutality doesn’t always have a reason.