Production photos by Marnya Rothe.
There has been and after Opening Night tonight, there will continue to be , a great deal of public and media discussion about the violence of one scene of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s DRY LAND playing at Kings Cross Theatre. I am not the person who will add much to the specifics of that because, frankly, I didn’t watch. I cowered away from it, tried not to listen and just waited for it to end. And that is the very reason why artistic debate about a topic such as medication abortion requires skillful and respectful hands. Realism is vital. This story is not clinical it must not be whitewashed or sterilised.
Outhouse Theatre Company and Mad March Hare Theatre Company are those hands.
DRY LAND introduces us to Ester and Amy. Amy is forceful and solid. And pregnant. Ester greatly hero worships her and seems slightly overawed by being asked to be the co-conspirator in her attempts to induce a miscarriage … by being punched in the stomach. The girls are swimmers. The place is the white tiled dressing sheds.
Amy’s best friend is actually Reba and Amy is not above using vague Reba allusions in manipulating Ester’s participation. Ester’s evident guilessness belies a darkness that will show itself to a stranger, Victor when their parents arrange for her to stay at his dorm. She is at his college for a disenfranchising tryout for a swim scholarship. Amy seems little interested in a real friendship with Ester however the physical intervention unsuccessful, there must be collusion to purchase the medications.
This is a polished, professional production that wears its heart on its sleeve. Sarah Rae Anne Meacham gives us an Ester who grows and changes throughout the play as she wrestles with demons that have tortured her in the past. It’s a subtle performance with undercurrents that smack head on into the undertow of Patricia Pemberton’s Amy. Dominant, changeable and until the end unknowable, Pemberton pulls off the difficult trick of appearing one thing while being described as another. And she does this without conflict or loss of believability.
The two women have a rapport that elevates the audience’s involvement in their circumstances. It is also important to mention that their control over the challenging physicality of the abortion scene is vital for the credibility of the play’s intention.
They have fine support in Charles Upton who is really terrific as Victor, a young man out of his depth with college life and family complications. And he is so funny. That’s what is so enriching about Ruby Rae Spiegel’s script; it has such elevating, comic, character based moments despite the gravity of its themes. Michelle Ny as Reba personifies one of those themes. She is travelling through adolescence with a flighty, gossipy, self-obsession that rings wonderfully true. One can see why Amy kept Reba out of her plans.
Also in fine support are the production and creative crew. The set ( Isabel Hudson) is simple, white tiles and two long dark wood benches. But in those scene changes when the lights (Liam O’Keefe) morph from glaring fluorescent to underwater aquas and bluey-greens and the underwater echo and spill of the audio track ( Ben Pierpoint) blurs the senses … then … those benches look like the black line on the bottom of a pool. The senses are water- dulled and the audience has time to think and breathe before the scene which will take our breath from us.
It is very important that you take the trigger warnings in all of the publicity about this show seriously. It is graphic, inescapable. I thought I would be fine. A life in the theatre has inured me to stage blood, I recently worked on the Sydney season of 1984 without incident. But I couldn’t watch and knew beforehand that would probably be so. What I didn’t know is that the scene afterwards, where the bloody mess is cleaned with custodial indifference would set me off. Trouble controlling my nausea then for reasons that require investigation.
Without irony I would suggest that DRY LAND is about choice and this Australian premiere production is an artistic contributor to the debate about medicinal abortion because it is not sterile, logical or singly experienced. Surely, if men and women of childbearing age are to speak of such things then understanding the visceral, bloody, realities can only inform choices.
DRY LAND plays at the Kings Cross Theatre until 19 August.