It’s a ghost story without a ghost – thus is the intriguing tagline of Polly Stenham’s dark drama, Tusk Tusk, being presented by independent theatre company, Patalog Theatre, later this month.

Not just another story about neglected and abandoned children, Tusk Tusk is a deeper, more penetrating glance into the dark hole of deprivation and one that young and rising talent, Markella Kavenagh, could not resist.

“I fell in love with Tusk Tusk over the notion of family suffering for one another; and suffering against all odds with each other for that matter, ‘ says Kavenagh about the familial nature of the play. “Having siblings myself, I initially related to Maggie’s (my character) protective nature. I resonated with the idea that, whilst she may not be aware of it, Maggie has drawn parallels between herself and her mother; a common ground of incessant loneliness which drives that longing for connection and affirmation of self-worth. I viewed the play as a bit of a Ferris wheel. Every time you reach the top, the fog is cleared, and you’re presented with piercing perspective, but only for a second. Before you can press pause, you’re back in the dark waiting for that respite once more.  It’s the cyclical nature of the narrative. Put simply, it’s an absolute ride reading Stenham.”

As with That Face,  Stenham’s first play, Tusk Tusk deals with hard familial themes where children are put at an unequivocal risk in a high stakes environment. Abandonment and sibling roles and responsibility are the themes that Kavenagh thinks of first. “The question of whether or not being bound by blood obligates you to a duty of care intrigues me,” she says. “Tusk Tusk asks whether sticking by one another when a crisis occurs worsens or alleviates suffering?   It’s a question that’s explored throughout the play and determines each sibling’s individual choices. Eliot, Maggie and Finn all know a different version of their mother. This both divides and unites them, at the same time. At its hilt, this play is about love; specifically, sibling love. As our director Ruby says: every scene is a love scene.”

Stenham’s play revolves around three young siblings ( 2 boys and a girl) and their desperate attempt at keeping their heads afloat in a non traditional landscape. Kavenagh plays 14 year old Maggie, a young girl asked to grow up before her years. As an actor, Kavenagh is excited by the opportunity to find character and cites the biggest challenge for her as sensory memory

“I’ve been trying to remember what it felt like to be ‘entering the early stages of womanhood’, such as the humiliation or even shame of bringing up a first period…how tabooed! Or in Maggie’s case, simply not having a stable maternal figure to discuss physical changes with. Maggie’s age also heightens the stakes of revealing truths to Eliot. How can she reason with him when she struggles to make sense of her situation herself?”

With moments of humour and incredible tenderness, Tusk Tusk is, without doubt, a dark, confronting piece, however, says Kavenagh, it will be as distressing as the audience wants it to be. “There are some solid, basic given circumstances which are pretty confronting at face value, but the extent to which you mull over them after the play will determine how affected you remain,” she says.

The play is directed by talented Australian actor, writer and director, Ruby Rees (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and is described by Kavenagh as  possibly one of the most creatively charged people she knows. “She’s so incredibly passionate about this story and these children, and I’ve loved exploring this play with her. Working with her as a director has been a joy and we have established extraordinarily valuable shorthand with one another since starting rehearsals.”

As an actor, Kavenagh enjoys stories and characters which haven’t been told or played before. Her belief is that often those are due to the idea or central message having been stigmatised. “This can isolate people, induce feelings of loneliness and even cause segregation,” she says. “When you see that kind of story brought to life by a medium such as film or theatre, people feel more connected to themselves and thus more connected to each other, despite their differences. That’s what I hope to do.”

Established in 2017 by Artistic Director Ben Walter, Patalog Theatre is very pleased to be bringing Tusk Tusk to the historic St Martins Theatre in South Yarra. Patalog Theatre Co. is descried as having developed a taste for the darker side of theatrical expression, whilst maintaining a keen focus on creating a brand of theatre that is intensely engaging for audiences, making Tusk Tusk a custom fit.

Kavenagh and Walter have known one another for years, having done a couple of shows as students in high school and going on to tour in the UK together. Kavenagh admits to admiring his fearlessness in starting up Patalog. “He came to me with a script and an audition packet and I was ecstatic to learn it was one of Stenham’s. That Face floored me and Tusk Tusk only reiterates how much of a genius Polly is. I’m thrilled to be joining Patalog on this production,” she says.

Tusk Tusk will challenge, enlighten and provoke both thought and conversation.  Kavenagh invites audiences to come and feel comforted by bonding through tragedy.

June 26 – July 7