Good, but a little cliched, I thought. And that about sums Brothers Wreck up. The playwright, Jada Alberts, last year won the Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright's Award (or BFIPA, as I, and no one else, likes to call it), and was commissioned to write a new play. This is not that play. Rather, it is her first, and while not as shocking as, say, Polly Stenham's debut That Face – on at Belvoir a few years ago – it is nevertheless a showcase of a new voice that has, by the look and sound of it, much potential.
Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard). Photo by Brett Boardman.
It tells the story of Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard), a young man who finds his brother dead by suicide one early Darwin morning. His sister Adele (Rarriwuy Hick) and her boyfriend Jarrod (Bjorn Stewart) discover the body, too, and then we jump forward to the fallout from it all – the guilt, the anger, the grief, and so on. David (Cramer Cain) is a counselor brought in to massage Ruben through a parole period after he lashes out, and Petra (Lisa Flanagan), is the aunt/mother that drives from Alice Springs to see her terminally ailing sister in the hospital, and also try to pick up the crumpled pieces of a family that she finds.
Ruben is the central character to it all, with his reaction to grief the dark sun around which the rest of the cast orbits. Page-Lochard plays him with a full commitment, spanning the drunken rages and pained introspections with a malignant charisma that leaves open room for the audience's empathy. He has a kind of spontaneity that this kind of character requires, such that we believe in his threats and his physical presence; that we believe that this could be the night he actually breaks. Stewart as Jarrod is also very good, a young man with anger of his own but one that he has learnt to temper and funnel into various determinations (such as keeping the family together, helping his brother, and so on). Cain and Flanagan are given less to do in their roles, but manage fine with their helpings of authoritative exasperations and pleadings. Hick, on the other hand – to this critic, at least – seemed to struggle to find the truth in her lines in some of the quieter moments – the emotion and motivations were clear, but the words out of the mouth stuck in the air slightly too long. It was only slight, but it was noticeable. In her more forceful moments, however, she remained convincing as the woman who had had it up to here with the frogs, and the rain, and the interpersonal dramas.
First time director (at Belvoir, at least) Leah Purcell (obviously more known for her much-admired work as an actor) has crafted, along with Alberts, a reasonably taut play (although there are a few minor lags) that grabs the attention from the second minute (the first is quite quiet) and rarely lets go. My main problem, and this is perhaps because I have seen it before more than once, is that I no longer find the young-man-responding-to-close-death-in-angry-ways trope all that original any more. (Of course, there are only a limited number of stories in the world, so who am I to complain?) Alberts play is certainly one of the better variations on this theme, but it is not the best variation, nor did it have enough oomph to make one forget about the general course of such stories while one was mid-watching.
Petra (Lisa Flanagan), Adele (Rarriwuy Hick), and Jarrod (Bjorn Stewart). Photo by Brett Boardman.
Indeed, there was a play on quite similar themes last year, only less than a hundred steps away in the Belvoir Downstairs Theatre (Brothers Wreck being in the Upstairs) called This Heaven, which too involved a family death and a family banding together to try and save their wayward son. I have fonder memories of that play, by BFIPA winner (see, it gets used) for 2012, Nakkah Lui, than I do of the current work, but that may too be a rose-tinted view of the past. (Coincidentally, playwright Alberts acted – and gave a great performance – in that very play, though the two are different both in style and their broader implications.)
One feels the hand of a writer reveling in her phrases in Alberts script, and there are some very good lines of dialogue that echo in the cranium and set the thoughts running. ("Grief's a slippery little sucker with a mind of its own", being one that is, very helpfully, quoted in the program notes for this critic to peruse.)
I enjoyed it. If you've never seen an angry-young-man type play, or haven't seen one in some time, then you'll no doubt enjoy it more than me. Dale Ferguson's set – a dilapidated, corrugated, and fibro shack of a room, with stairs running to a hidden second floor, and windows with live running rain, is both grungy and marvelous, its stained concrete floor a metaphor for the stains in the characters' lives. (Perhaps that is reading more into it than there is – inserting a metaphor where none was intended – but I'll go with it anyway.) The lighting by Luiz Pampolha is both striking, at times, and efficiently delineating at others. The sound and composition, by Brendan O'Brien, is unnoticeable (apart from the rain and frogs), which is normally a good thing for a sound design to be, and such is the case here.
A passionate new Australian play, and well worth a visit, especially if you want to go to Darwin without having to deal with the heat!