Brendan Cowell in The Dark Room | Belvoir Street Theatre

Angela Betzien’s The Dark Room, directed by Leticia Caceres, amounts to 80 minutes of extraordinary, in-your-face emotional and theatrical intensity. It’s a thrilling, visceral ride that will test your mettle and, in all likelihood and at the very least, unsettle you. Which is precisely as it should be.

The Dark Room manages to tap into a dark side of life in the Top End only those who’ve lived there are likely to have witnessed and absorbed. Living there, one doesn’t have a choice, as it’s as heavy and lingering in the air as the jasmine and frangipani that wafts sweetly on the back of a dry season evening breeze. But in The Dark Room, inside the play, there’s no fresh air. It’s stale and poisonous. Domestic violence, incest, self-harm, suicide, assault and murder swim against the tourism tide, like so many salties. Not that we should get high-and-mighty: I seriously doubt there’s any credible evidence to suggest the incidence of such is appreciably higher in the Territory, than elsewhere. You try living through the build-up and not really losing it, now and then.

Designer Michael Hankin must’ve stayed in a few seedy hotels, ’cause he does dingy to a tee. Or dee. Christopher Page’s lighting is in sombre sympathy. Leah Purcell, who, thankfully, we’ve seen a lot of this year, is Anni, a youth worker revisiting the scene of a tragedy she can’t forget. Billie Rose Prichard is Grace, the deeply scarred (by her own hand, physically) teen, or young adult, whose memory haunts and torments Anni. To labour the metaphor, the heaviness hands like intractable, inescapable tropical humidity, echoing the experience of the playwright and director, in comparable Queensland, where she learnt of children at risk being corralled in cheap motels for their own protection. Their passion is palpable. The programme notes include the following testimony:

“We are dedicated to telling stories of those without power, particularly the stories of children, who so often suffer at the hands of those who misuse and abuse their authority and privilege. Justice will only come when we, as a society, acknowledge what the dead have suffered and the living endure; when we cease repeating the mistakes of the past; when we take action to truly protect all children, not just our own.”

Purcell and Prichard exemplify the despair almost intolerably: there’s none of Kundera’s unbearable lightness of being here. Betzien and Caceres jackhammer their point home, with black drama so emotionally viscous, it’s as if one’s lungs are slowly filling with a bitter treacle. The bleakness brought about by the death of a child perhaps no one could save seems to infect everyone who came within spitting distance.

Cam Stewart is better than I’ve ever seen him, as child-molesting cop, Craig. His portrayal is notable for striking a balance between outward arsehole and a helpless vulnerability not unlike that of the kids he preys upon. It would’ve been too easy for him, his director, and the writer, to slate him as a unidimensional stereotype. But even his frailty and humanity is in evidence, making for an uncomfortably real relationship with the audience. Splendidly wrought! His victim is Joseph (Bjorn Stewart), habituated to abuse as part of his sexual and other identity. Yep, it’s challenging work, and not only for the actors.

The standout was Brendan Cowell, as Stephen, the ‘hardened’ cop beginning to buckle under the weight of remembrance, endemic corruption and a rocky marriage. He doesn’t only play such a cop, he veritably becomes him. If I could snaffle an Oscar, Logie, or some kind of perceived-as-precious statuette from the back of a truck, I’d give it to him. More, if I had ’em. A critic’s circle award should be in the offing, at least. Extraordinary. Excellent, too, was Anna Lise Phillips, as his worn-down wife, Emma, seeds of doubt planted in her womb right alongside her growing baby.

There’s no blame game or scapegoating here, though. Betzien and Caceres reflect as much compassion for cops and carers as victims. Nor do they make it black-and-white, in any sense. But they do cite, again by way of background and context, the April, 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and note, with profound regret, as should we all, the lack of implementation of key recommendations, even after 20 years. And they count the toll on all concerned. A toll each and every one of us pays, sooner or later. But, of course, we don’t pay with our own lives. They also rightly denounce the ineffectual outcomes of the Howard government’s disempowering intervention, still in place. We stare down the barrel of yet another generation, or more, of paternalism. Talking. Shouting. Not hearing. Certainly not listening.

Perhaps it’s about time we built better, stronger, more connecting bridges. Bridge walks weren’t nearly enough.

The Dark Room is one we all inhabit. It’s also a play that’s, at once, dark and brilliant. Tough stuff. Give me more of the same, please. Scott Witt’s fight choreography had just the right pub-brawl intensity and desperation about it, too.

The details: The Dark Room┬áis at Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre until November 27. Tickets on the venue website.

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