Something is definitely off at Wonnangatta cattle station in a remote alpine valley in Victoria’s East Gippsland. It is 1918, and Harry Smith has tried twice now to deliver the mail, in January and again in February. But the station manager, Harry’s mate Jim Barclay, and Barclay’s cook and station hand John Bamford – “a nasty piece of work … a parasite like all the worst” – are nowhere to be found.
Wonnangatta, now playing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre with the Sydney Theatre Company, is Angus Cerini’s latest investigation of male violence. Based on the true story of two unsolved murders, it’s told at times in rough, vernacular rhyme, a kind of Gothic poetry that rides roughshod over the notions of Aussie mateship in sentimental bush ballads.
Harry (Hugo Weaving) and farmer William Riggall (Wayne Blair) have already crossed paths when this play begins. They go searching for the missing pair, accompanied by Barclay’s dog, Baron, all “bones and ribs” and clearly not fed for weeks, surviving on whatever it could find. There is an eerie musical soundscape as they saddle up. The mountainous country is represented on the darkened, spotlit stage by a single raised semicircle of ribbed earth.
Weaving and Blair master the rich prose and verse, relishing Cerini’s idiosyncratic locutions and chewing over the verbal repetitions (“Something is off, something is definitely off”). They perform a pas de deux, each spending much of the 90 minutes on stage looking squarely into the audience, slightly distanced from one another but at times mimicking one another’s movement as they lean to the same side or lunge forward together.
Harry is too sure of himself, intending to wreak retribution based on limited facts, while Riggall is doubtful about being caught in Harry’s slipstream. Each performer regularly describes his action: “Shake me head, don’t know what you’re saying,” says Riggall, the literalism prompting laughter in the audience.
Director Jessica Arthur says this play is about “how people need each other”. I agree: Harry and Riggall support each other through the rough terrain, knowing they may be cut down by an unseen foe. It is also about men’s inflated sense of entitlement. Arthur has done wonderful work choreographing Weaving and Blair’s satirical dance of machismo.
They find Jim Barclay’s body buried in the creek bed, playing up the folklore that Barclay was decapitated. In this telling, the head is “chewed clean right off”. Harry declares, with complete assurance, that dingoes have had a feed. The day after seeing this play, I recall the passage when Harry and Riggall are standing by Barclay’s head and burst out laughing again:
HARRY Mercy be upon you Jim Barclay.
RIGGALL He’s dead.
HARRY Well he ain’t out mustering that’s for sure.
RIGGALL Or filling other men’s wives.
HARRY Well he won’t be doing any more of that now will he.
RIGGALL No. Bit of a relief around town then.
Cerini’s previous play, The Bleeding Tree, also featured the darkly comic desecration of a body. An unnamed mother and her two daughters on a farm outside a small rural town murder their abusive father, and string the patriarchal carcass from a tree to bleed like a slaughtered animal. Dingoes, foxes, crows, rats and even chickens line up for a feed, and their dog, Old Blue, goes for the abuser’s balls before chewing on his “maggoty heart”.
Reading The Bleeding Tree and Wonnangatta side by side, I revelled in their poetry, the lyrical voice given to vengeful deeds. At the dark heart of these plays is an authorial anger about the violence of men, leavened by comedy. The women of The Bleeding Tree gleefully recast emasculation as recycling. Animals eat the dead man’s dick, after the mother suggests, “Lookit his beauty girls, such a sight to see. Tie the thing off, wrap it round the tree.” She settles on making a stock from his bones.
In their mutual exploration of the darkness in masculine authority, these two plays would make a double bill I hope to see one day.
In performance, The Bleeding Tree has the edge, as women transgress their gendered roles amid a growing tension over whether the townsfolk will protect them from the law. Wonnangatta is limited by the historical events and the unsolved murders, but it has its own gripping tensions. Will Harry and Riggall survive? Is Harry holding back more than he’s letting on? Once again, Cerini successfully strips bare men’s flimsy rationalisations for committing violence.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2020 as "Australian Gothic".
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