Multi-disciplinary artist Bernadette Trench-Thiedeman’ s latest work, Phantasmagoria, opens its world premiere at Theatre Works next month. The hauntingly poetic play explores the troubled relationship between a woman and her violent father long after he has passed away, and uses visual theatre, puppetry, original score and projections in its creative telling.

The woman, Briony, is just your regular girl from the outer suburbs, finding love, trying to make a new life and hopefully a home. VCA graduate, Meg Dunn, plays quite a few different characters ranging from the emotion of new grief to a medium to Briony herself. “I think at this point in the rehearsal process I’m still figuring out their purposes and what I like about them,” she says. “Right now I’m just having fun exploring in the rehearsal room.”

Dunn remembers seeing the very first reading of Phantasmagoria  when she was in drama school. “I remember thinking it was such a creative and imaginative work in which grief is dealt with in a way I’d never seen,” she says. “So when the opportunity came up, I really wanted to be a part of it. I’m super excited and interested in how we can develop this further!”

The play is full of grief, love, loss, absurdity and a generous serving of stage magic. Briony is in the process of unearthing her father’s childhood in Sri Lanka, his brutal World War II history in Burma, migration journey, alcoholism, and his family’s eventual escape from him.

Dunn admits to thinking that families are such funny strange things, and the way we love and care for those who we know have done wrong is something that’s always interesting to explore. Dunn outlines the concepts universality: “We’ve all had people in our lives who we try to make excuses for, to love even when they’ve hurt us. I think this play will resonate in its creativity as well- by not slapping the audience over the head with its message, but rather in its abstractness and in using metaphors and… wait for it… puppets!!! That’s pretty cool.”

Clearly,  themes of grief and love are prominent in the work and, says Dunn, the beautiful and sad way that they can co-exist. The play also explores themes of war, family, trust, betrayal, violence against women and mental health. “These are all extremely relevant to a contemporary audience as they are things we deal with every single day in different ways and at different points in our lives,” she says.

Dunn describes Trench-Thiedeman’s writing style as poetic and abstract. “It’s very cool,” she says. “When you have work that is so poetic the mood is immediately heightened. I think often it falls into melancholy but other times there’s such moments of joy and love. The atmosphere is constantly changing which is really exciting. I think the energy is often changed as new puppets/characters enter the space. For example you can just imagine the energy that emerges when a character like anxiety runs onstage…”

Trench-Thiedeman is an acclaimed theatre, puppetry and animation artist so it comes as no surprise that  Phantasmagoria is a creative blend of human actors and puppetry, giving the work a beautiful yet haunting blend of fantasy and grim reality. She is also credited for the artwork, puppetry design and animation, as well as being an actor within the play.

So what, for Dunn, is the advantage of having the playwright,  Trench-Thiedeman, as part of the cast: “I mean, it’s her story. It’s so wonderful to have her there to tell it. There’s an extra element of truth that then emerges which is so beautiful to see. I also think (considering she wrote it) that Bernie has all the info for us other actors. Instead of guessing what the playwright meant, we can actually ask her cause she’s right there!”

As for the puppetry, Dunn has actually only worked with one puppet so far but watch this space. “I am so excited to learn more about puppeteering and the connection between actor and puppet!” she says.

Travelling back and forth through time and space, Phantasmagoria is a haunting feast for the senses. Dynamic performance, comedy, puppetry and evocative animated imagery give physical life to the strange realm of ghosts, letting audiences glimpse unseen worlds and uneasy memories which persist – can we ever truly shake them?

Dunn comments that Phantasmagoria is like nothing you will have seen so far. “It’s new and innovative with a beautiful cast and crew! After the COVID year it’s so important to support new Australian work and Australian theatre venues… so get your butt to the theatre!!!”

September 1 – 11

Images: Jack Dixon-Gunn