Now here’s a play that gives you something to chew over, like a good wine that leaves something on the back-palate, as opposed to something impenetrably, indigestibly cryptic. Elise Hearst has written something informed, wittingly, unwittingly, or both, by the experiences and psychosocial outcomes of her holocaust-surviving grandmother (she even stole the names of her grandma’s friends) and extrapolated it as a contemporary warning and reminder of our susceptibility, whatever the racial, religious, political or geographic context, to reigns of terror; of how easily masses of humanity can be duped, willingly, or unwillingly, by voracious tyrants.
Dirtyland comes from production company Arthur which, I suppose, is akin to having a band named George. Arthur, by its own biographical admission, is an idiosyncratic company of an ilk of which I wish there were more. This, in association with The Spare Room, a project of, or at least at, New Theatre which, I confess, I don’t understand. But it sounds good, even if it’s in the customary space.
Paige Rattray directs, and well. Hearst also features, as Renya, a neurotically chirpy, brutalised innocent, who cherishes a massive bruise on her leg as an isolated token of her husband’s attention and affection. She’s the dinner-on-the-table wife that was a whole generation.
Megan Holloway is Anya, a young woman with a chipped tooth, which becomes infected and even noxious during the course of the action. She’s poisoned alright, by the circumstances in which she finds herself, the filthy aftermath of a massacre. It’s not so hard to imagine (not least by dint of the deep brown earth sprinkled all over the stage), indigenous Australians feeling this kind of imprisonment, subjugation and desperation.
Even amidst these horrors, Anya burns with sexual desire. Her platonic instincts are focussed on an idealisation of her handsome, young friend, Moses, who all have reified, if not deified, as the living, breathing epitome of goodness. This view is challenged when one of the two best actors on stage, in Lucy Miller, as Aviva, seduces li’l’ Mo’; much as, perhaps, Mary Magdalene seduced goody-two-shoes Jesus. Seeing his mother’s manipulation afresh, this unleashes Moses’ best friend Harry’s unrequited passion for Anya.
Tami Sussman is Frieda, the silent, or silenced, daughter of Renya. While Renya is tormented day in, day out by Frieda’s horrible death, Frieda is released from this living hell, seemingly at peace.
Netta Yashchin is Mrs Brown, aggrieved by the death of her inescapably ever-present husband. Everyone says what a good man Mr Brown was. Only the good die young, right?
All the performances are energised and utterly compelling, with Miller’s and Gabriel Fancourt’s (Harry) being the unrivalled standouts. Backstage craft is of an exceptional standard too: eery live sounds and composition emanating from Joseph Nizeti and Marcus Whale’s gizmos are perfectly in-tune with the dramatic arc, as is Ross Graham’s subdued lighting design, which uses spots handheld by actors to ramp things up.
David Fleischer’s set is the best I can recall seeing for any New production: that bloodstained dirt; vintage kitchen cupboards baby boomers and beyond will recognise from their grandparents’ humble houses; ragged clothing; tousled hair.
To labour the comestible analogy, in this age of MasterChefdom, Dirtyland gives you a meaty main course, cooked just so, while you’re in the theatre, and a substantial doggy-bag of thoughts, feelings and internal debates, to go.