Broken arrives on stage in Sydney accompanied by considerable fanfare. It was shortlisted for the 2016 NSW Premier’s Nick Enright Prize for Drama and, in 2014, for the Griffin Theatre Award. And then in January, for her work in creating Broken, playwright Mary Anne Butler received not only the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama, but also the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature – the richest writing prize in the country.
It’s fair, therefore, to say that expectations coming into the play’s premiere at Darlinghurst Theatre’s Eternity Playhouse this week were high. But the production patently demonstrates why, in its early life, the work has found itself the recipient of such prestigious accolades.
Billed as a story of hope and human resilience in the face of adversity, the events in Broken begin at midnight in the Northern Territory’s Central Desert. Ash (Rarriwuy Hick) has been at the wheel of a vehicle involved in a near-fatal crash and remains trapped in that vehicle. Soon, Ham (Ivan Donato) comes to her rescue. In that moment of life and death, an inextricable bond is forged between the pair (a situation apparently common following these kinds of traumatic events). Ash’s and Ham’s is an emotional and physical attachment that could see their worlds collide with ramifications potentially as serious as those of the car accident itself. The significant complication that arises from the bond is that Ham has a partner at home, Mia (Sarah Enright), who has lost an unborn child. She too will be impacted by the harrowing events of the evening.
Butler has crafted a text that’s frequently been described as poetic, and that’s absolutely accurate. It’s a rich script that so vividly suggests characters and events through description that the text immediately takes its rightful place front and centre in the theatrical piece. And it’s for that reason that to make this work all about its dialogue and sound is the best directorial decision for this production. Rather than a piece trying to depict its events in a designed environment that evokes the physical setting, Sophie Fletcher has instead created a sound studio, in which the performers are simultaneously actors and Foley artists, tasked with creating a substantial component of the piece’s soundscape, both through spoken dialogue and their generation of sound effects. It’s a shrewd decision by director Shannon Murphy, ensuring the poetry of Butler’s words is every bit as affecting as it should be. Likely, the experience of attending Broken will remind many of late nights spent in bed, listening to radio plays before drifting off to sleep.
Ensuring the weight of the dialogue isn’t lost in translation are Hick, Donato and Enright, three actors with spectacular speaking voices who deliver each syllable so beautifully that each character, sans a proper visual identity, is wonderfully realised. Even when the text has the potential to confuse, the actors’ delivery ensure it remains skilfully weaved together in such a way that you don’t lose track of unfolding events. Each actor carefully uses a variety of implements (though perhaps not all the tools that they find in front of them) to create rich and varied sound effects for the piece. Adding further to the opulent soundscape are the gentle musical tracks of composer and sound designer, James Brown, helping to ensure moods form with crystal clarity.
Ben Brockman has also done wonderful work in creating the lighting design for Broken. The subtle and unobtrusive use of lights is what makes his work so completely successful. Early on in the piece, as it looks more and more likely that Ash will lose her life following the crash, the lights ever so slowly dim over an extended period. It’s so gradual, in fact, that, as an audience member, you’re so completely oblivious to the dimming until it looks as though Ash will make it through, and you hear her deeply exhale. At that time, strong light suddenly washes across the stage once more. It is a beautiful, impeccably timed moment during which each element of the production syncs spectacularly to wonderful effect.
It’s evident from early on that Murphy has worked painstakingly to give the treatment to Butler’s text that it deserves, to nurture it and to work with her cast and creative colleagues to craft a production unlike anything we’ve seen in Sydney this year. Broken is a gorgeously written and impacting piece that astutely poses questions with which human beings are confronted when they’re unwittingly plunged into the most challenging of situations. This is undeniably powerful theatre.
BROKEN – SEASON DETAILS
Season: Until 28 August
Performance Times: Wed – Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm, Wed matinee 24 Aug at 11am, Sat matinees: 20 & 27 August at 3pm
Duration: Approximately 60mins (no interval)
Ticket Prices: Adult $45/ Conc & Groups $38/ Under 30 (Wed & Thu) & Previews.
*A $2 booking fee applies per ticket for online and phone bookings
Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987 (9.30am-5.30pm weekdays)