Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The Chosen Vessel, Oct 31, 2007

The Chosen Vessel 
adapted from Barbara Baynton by Petty Traffickers
 Theatreworks, Oct 31 to Nov 18, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 31, 2007

Australian writer, Barbara Baynton, published her short stories around the turn of the 20th century. Director of Petty Traffickers, Stewart Morritt, adapts three of her bush stories for this production: A Dreamer, Squeaker’s Mate and The Chosen Vessel.

There is some unevenness in the interpretations of the various tales. The more successfully rendered stories – A Dreamer and The Chosen Vessel – combine narration with enactment of the stories­­ while Squeaker’s Mate extracts dialogue and action from Baynton’s narrative. The cast of three gives passionate and committed performances of a range of iconic bush characters.

The Chosen Vessel is a chilling tale of the rape and murder of a young woman (Chloe Armstrong) left alone with her baby in her isolated home. Morritt evokes a potent sense of menace when a dangerous traveller (Joe Clements) approaches her house.

The resonant voice of the narrator (Margot Knight) from behind the audience accentuates the darkness of the narrative. Deep shadows and unsettling, suspenseful pauses heighten its horror. The hostile bush environment is almost as threatening as the violent home invader and the vulnerability of the woman is distressing and she fights to protect her baby if not herself.

The forbidding landscape is also featured in A Dreamer when a young pregnant woman (Armstrong) contends with the elements as she battles her way through the inhospitable bush to visit her mother. Baynton’s themes of motherhood and maternal instinct recur here as the young woman’s physical and metaphorical journey takes her through a storm towards her mother who lies on her deathbed.

Baynton’s recurrent theme of male abuse of women occurs again in Squeaker’s Mate. Squeaker (Clements) is a lazy, dim-witted farmer who relies on his sturdy, masculine wife (Knight), known as his “mate”, to manage all the heavy farm work. When a felled tree cripples her, his shameful neglect of her leads to outright abuse and abandonment. The loyal dog, another of Baynton’s recurrent themes, defends her and pays her faithless husband back in spades. Knight’s rendition of the broken woman as she drags her lifeless limbs around her hut is alarming and disturbing.

These stories have dramatic potential and some of that is realised in these staged versions. The cavernous space distorts the voices at times and the production still needs some editing and tightening.

By Kate Herbert

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