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The Bleeding Tree at Southwark Playhouse Borough | Review

The Bleeding Tree is a sixty-five-minute play by the Australian playwright Angus Cerini, first seen in Sydney in 2015 and now receiving its British premiere. Cerini was trained as a ballet dancer, which is evident from the sudden changes of physicality he asks the actors to make in order for them to briefly take on different roles, usually male, as well as their own. His plays often focus on men and their behaviour, as does The Bleeding Tree, even though we never see the man himself as, when the play starts, he has just been murdered by his wife and two daughters owing to his abusive behaviour over many years.

Elizabeth Dulau, Mariah Gale and Alexandra Jensen in The Bleeding Tree. Image by Lidia Crisafulli.
Elizabeth Dulau, Mariah Gale and Alexandra Jensen in The Bleeding Tree. Image by Lidia Crisafulli.

The play explores the moral ambiguity around what we do when pushed to the limit and deals with how the three women dispose of the dead body. We see their fluctuating feelings, from shock to relief to guilt, the play examining women’s resilience and raising questions about a community’s responsibility to speak out against violence.

Surprisingly, this gruesome piece of writing is also darkly funny at times, but is not an easy watch! The language is heightened rather than being naturalistic and the protagonists declaim many of their lines to the audience rather than having conversations. There is little action as such, which the director, Sophie Drake, tries to cope with by having much of the play underscored by a backing track of music and sound effects (Asaf Zohar) to try to tell us when a particular scene is building to a climax, or what we should be thinking at any particular moment, but I found it irritating at times – there was just too much of it! – and longed for the moments of silent background when we could concentrate on the play!

The Matriarch of The Bleeding Tree (and the title is explained during the performance) is Mariah Gale. She exudes exhaustion and strength at the same time: here, we feel, is someone who has endured many hardships throughout her life and this is yet another one that she has to cope with and will do so. As with the other two actors, she has been directed to use only the lower register of her voice, even when briefly playing other roles, giving the effect of living in dry heat, as if the very atmosphere has sapped the use of her vocal chords. Gale imbues this role with a hidden power and the use of her chin jutting out into the audience shows her inner motivation yet weariness at the same time.

Elizabeth Dulau and Alexandra Johnson are the two daughters, Ida and Ada, obviously their mother’s children, having the same strength of purpose, yet occasionally wilting at the thought of having killed their father, and now having to dispose of his body. Both are very successful portrayals, yet it is very difficult for us to empathise either with them or their mother: after all, they have just murdered someone who should have been very close to them…

The production benefits from a simple set (Jasmine Swan) which appears to be a wave ready to crash down on the family, with bright red sand on the beach. The unobtrusive lighting (Ali Hunter) aids the creation of mood in what is at times an unpleasant experience! The director describes Angus’ text as “daring and formally inventive” but the production seems to need a more inventive approach to fully bring it to life: too often it feels repetitive.

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

Ida Elizabeth Dulau
Mum Mariah Gale
Ada Alexandra Jensen

Writer Angus Cerini (he/him)
Director Sophie Drake (she/her)
Producer Jessie Anand Productions
Set / Costume Designer Jasmine Swan (she/her)
Movement Director Iskandar إسكندر R. Sharazuddin (he/him)
Lighting Designer Ali Hunter (she/her)
Composer / Sound Designer Asaf Zohar (he/him)
Casting Director Fran Cattaneo (she/her)

The Bleeding Tree is a fascinating exploration of the moral ambiguity around what we do when pushed to the limit. Following years of abuse from the man of the house, The Bleeding Tree’s leading women have finally reached the end of their tether and shot him dead. Now they must deal with their fluctuating feelings – from shock to relief to guilt – all whilst figuring out how to dispose of a body. This lyrical drama will examine women’s resilience and raise questions around a community’s responsibility to speak out against violence.

THE BLEEDING TREE
Southwark Playhouse Borough (The Little)
29 May to 22 June 2024

Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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