Roslyn Packer Theatre, September 25
The pops and trills of native birds that greet us as we enter lull us into a false sense of wellbeing amid the Victorian Alpine bush. Angus Cerini’s new play may ostensibly be a two hander, with Hugo Weaving as Harry and Wayne Blair as Riggall, but this bush – together with the mountainsides to which it clings and the surrounding fickle weather – is a fully-fledged third entity – and hostile. Its heat, flies, blizzards, disappearing paths and treacherous ravines make or break its settlers, or as Riggall says, “Softly fall the snowflakes and the men.”
Cerini’s story tells of unsolved murders in Wonnangatta over a century ago – a time when other men who might have scratched a living there with cattle and sheep were dying in the mud of France. Like Cerini’s script, Jacob Nash’s set conjures mystery rather than providing answers: a raked platform serving for hut, creek, bush and rock, while Nick Schlieper’s lighting illuminates changes in the two men’s faces instead of defining spaces.
The murder mystery has furiously faded from theatrical fashion since Agatha Christie bowed out, and Cerini’s idea – the stage thriller as a sinewy verbal fantasia – might be a first. The wonder is that even while carrying a gripping yarn, his word pictures become so real as to be a partial substitute for physical acting – in fact the piece could also function as a radio play.
It’s not penned in verse, but in a tightly-reined shorthand that snaps and bites, a little like the raw poeticism once found in TV’s Deadwood. If never luxuriant, it can sometimes catch a very distant echo of our great bush balladeers, and Cerini even uses rhyming couplets in some exchanges between Riggall and Harry, as if to suggest a bond of thought. Just occasionally, however, the rhymes can jar, rather than tying a bow in those thoughts.
At the outset the characters’ lines seem almost interchangeable, before the story gradually establishes key differences. Harry, who is taken from history, is depicted as a loyal, soft-cored hard man with an extra veneer of spite, while Riggall, an amalgam of characters, has been toughened by the land without it knocking his moral compass askew.
Telescoping history into 90 minutes, Cerini drives the plot mercilessly, with intervals of time delineated by unnerving gasps of sound from Stefan Gregory’s score. Like the language, the ending diverges from the thriller genre, and men, like beasts, become as one with the land.
Director Jessica Arthur initially has Weaving and Blair stationary and addressing us directly. As we adjust to this we slide into the verbal world they build that’s more real than any scenery, so when they talk to Baron, the dog, they make the imaginary creature so extant you almost hear him pant. In a riveting later scene, Weaving becomes the dog, exhorting the two men to follow him, and later still has a furious internal dialogue with his nemesis.
The piece demands two actors who exude fierce look-at-me presence, and Weaving and Blair fill those boots to bursting. Their characters are capable of being amusing, too, but it’s a bleak and stoic humour in a dark work, which Harry encapsulates when he observes, “A terrible bloody thing, life.”
This is strong, bold and innovative work, well cast and well directed. Alas, Cerini was trapped in Melbourne for the opening night, and, in a bitter irony, he not only missed his play, he missed unusually effective social distancing measures.
Until October 31.