Review: The Dark Room

by Jane

The room is small.  One of those pokey rooms where you hope the sheets were changed from the last occupant, because the carpet certainly wasn’t vacuumed.  Brown is the colour of choice: patterns make it easier to hide the stains. At some hopeless attempt at natural light, a small boundary of windows lines the top of the room – but they really only let in the fluorescence of the car-park.  The television looks like it was picked out of the hard rubbish.  The bathroom is economical, which basically means it wouldn’t be a stretch to use the shower and toilet at the same time.  The overhead lights bulbously protrude from the ceilings in their fishbowl-like plastic covers; they are both too dim to properly see what you are doing, yet manage to cast a harsh light on the already harsh location.  It’s the sort of room you would expect to smell stale – of stale perspiration, stale cigarettes, stale sex, stale dreams from stale lives.

This room is no-one’s first choice in accommodation.

The Dark Room, Anna-Lise Phillips.

Grace (Billie Rose Pritchard), face hidden in a mask crudely made from a pillow case, doesn’t want to be there.  She knows youth worker Anni (Leah Purcell) promised to take her home, once.  Anni remembers this promise differently: she can’t take Grace to her house.  But where else can she go?  She can’t return to her abusive mother; no-one will take her in; can Grace send her back to the group home where she was sexually abused?  The hotel will do for the night; more of a plan will come in the morning.

The wedding was, let’s be honest, an excuse for a piss-up.  The women all know that’s why their men got together.  A piss-up and a celebration: don’t let the bastards grind you down.  Emma (Anna-Lise Phillips) wasn’t drinking – pregnant – but then, she saw little to celebrate.  Least of all her drunk husband Steve (Brendan Cowell) – once one of the good guys, now who can tell? – and a dead-end life in the Territory.

The room is private, at least.  Space for hardened cop Craig (Cam Stewart) to think. He didn’t do anything wrong though, right?  It was Joseph’s (Bjorn Stewart) own fault – standing and acting like that in the street, dressed in a woman’s night-gown  But he knows.  He knows it should have never happened like this.

Multiple nights.  Multiple stories.  One hotel.  Angela Betzien’s The Dark Room is an intricately crafted overlapping of narratives, as a darkness of the Northern Territory bares down on  her characters: of corrupt police, of dead-ends, of battered and abandoned children.

Director Leticia Caceres plays with a delicate choreography of her actors and space, pulling the tension within the relationships and between multiple-time lines and characters in the same space.  This tension crosses through the room, as the characters cross and intersect, the many people sharing the room, the television, the bed.

Betzien’s work is intense, the situation hateful, the characters hurtful, and I sat removed from much of the piece.  Perhaps I found it slightly too crafted in its entangling of stories.  The layering of scenes adds to the small town and small room claustrophobia, but through this layering, a balance of relationships being played out at the same time, I found myself disconnected to the characters.

Emma is both a woman you want to comfort and shake.  Anna-Lise Phillips brings a fragile yet determined quality to the role, as you watch her struggle with the tragedy of holding onto an image of a man who no-longer exists and the fear of what life for her and her child will mean in the Territory, she is shaken but tries to stand strong.  Not strong enough, I think, as I struggle to understand why she would stay with Steve. The weight of an honour lost is seen in Brendan Cowell’s performance, buckling under a system he doesn’t know how to fix, trying to escape his life with beer – the character is at once understandable and despicable.

The Dark Room

Leah Purcell’s Anni is the kindest and most relatable of the characters.  Stoic and giving, but so carefully toeing the line of professionalism, she watches over Grace: tenderly awkward, battered, frustrated and very young in Billie Rose Prichard’s performance.  The bulk of the play rests on the shoulders of this pair, and even as the other characters take over the space, I most often found my eyes drawn to the dilapidated Grace or the hard-worn Anni.

Bjorn Stewart’s fervent performance of Joseph does much to illuminate the grief and questioning struggle in Cam Stewart’s faltering Craig, yet I wonder if this element of the surreal detracts from the tension which is found between the couples.  As these “real” characters try to sort out their lives, Beitzen presents us with their manipulation as they all pitch and play off against one another – the battle between characters shows more than the dominance of what I read as a dream.

My left shoulder sat flush against the set, feeling the rocks scatter and fall against the other side of designer Michael Hankin’s hotel room wall.  Pete Goodwin’s sound design and composition aids in scaling down the already small space: a carcophony of noises melding into an uncomfortable music.  A soft underscore of sounds lie under the action, so you’re never quite sure if these sounds are sculpted, or are they just the sounds of the real Sydney which we inhabit?

Walking out of the theatre, a woman in front of me quipped “Well, we wouldn’t want to live in the Territory, would we?”  But no matter how safe we feel in our Surry Hills theatre spaces, or of the couch where I write this in Adelaide, these stories are happening.  Betzien didn’t fabricate a devastating life from nothing.  Our country is still one of great inequality.  These stories are pushed under the carpet far too often.  They are stories which deserve to be told, and they deserved to be tackled.

Belvoir presents The Dark Room by Angela Betzien.  Directed by Leticia Cáceres, Designer Michael Hankin, Lighting Designer Christopher Page, Composer & Sound Designer Pete Goodwin (The Sweats), Fight Choreographer Scott Witt, Production Stage Manager Glenn Dulihanty, Technical Supervisor Jack Audas Preston.  With Brendan Cowell, Anna Lise Phillips, Billie Rose Prichard, Leah Purcell, Bjorn Stewart, and Cameron Stewart. At Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until December 11.  More information and tickets.

Photos by Heidrun Lohr.