Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Wretch, Feb 19, 2009 ***1/2

Wretch by Angus Cerini
La Mama, Carlton, Feb 19 to March 8, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

In Wretch, winner of the 2007 Patrick White Playwright’s Award, Angus Cerini and Suzie Dee are both compelling and repellent as the damaged and almost demented mother and son. Cerini often writes about male violence in our community and this play is a prime example.

Wretch focuses intensely on the two characters and their fraught and dysfunctional relationship. Their interaction takes place when the mother (Dee) visits her son (Cerini) in a juvenile detention centre where he serves a sentence for beating a man and rendering him a quadriplegic. Their meeting is tortured and confused as the pair attempts to understand each other, their past, his crimes and her illness.

The actors perch on chairs facing the audience, the awkwardness of their meeting emphasised by the stark white cube (Marg Horwell) within which they sit. Their faces are mask-like, frozen in grimaces that echo the screaming pain of their lives. The white walls and floor are illuminated with harsh fluorescent light (Richard Vabre) that makes the couple look like human exhibits in a museum. Underscoring their relationship is an eerie sound scape (Kelly Ryall).

Cerini’s writing blends coarse, realistic dialogue with a rough, fractured, poetic language. Mother and son scramble to communicate in broken sentences that express their muddled thoughts, clumsy love and desperate need for connection.

Dee’s portrayal of the mother is sympathetic and delicately wrought. Sporting pink tracky-dacks and tee-shirt, she is the epitome of a down-market bogan. But her naivete and tentativeness, combined with her fierce desire to protect and love her son, invite our sympathy and attention. She slowly reveals her past as a cheap hooker who does not know the identity of her boy’s father then hesitantly tells of  “the sick” that riddles her body and claims her cancerous breast.

As the loutish boy, Cerini vibrates with the barely repressed rage of a young man who has only ever known insecurity, violence, poverty and despair. His presence is magnetic and sometimes frightening, but Cerini manages to find the tender underbelly of this uncouth man-boy who struggles to understand his own violent crimes and his fear of losing his mother to her illness.

Both actors are powerful throughout and Dee’s direction is taut, keeping the physical action to a minimum but the dramatic tension on full. The script has a few false endings in the latter half and seems to repeat itself, but the strong acting sustains the play making it a vivid depiction of two members of an underclass fighting for survival.

By Kate Herbert

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