presented by the New Theatre, August 2014
There’s a lot going on in Hilary Bell’s deceptively simple Bedtime Mystery, not least of which the gripping plotline, but more importantly the questions the play brings to the fore about human behaviour. None of these are answered satisfactorily (if that’s your thing), or if an answer is attempted, it raises further problems.
The deepest questions touch on the vexed issues surrounding depression; with the potency of the “wolf” motif throughout looming just out of reach, just a stone’s throw from the more familiar image of the Black Dog found in the discourse du jour. For those who may have family, friends or who suffer from it themselves might find these kinds of symbols useful. In my case they are inadequate, only a partial representation of the “swallowing” effect a foul mood can have. For in the end, one is solely responsible for their thoughts and feelings, and especially the actions which may follow. The poetic image of the outside Wolf or Dog as a manifestation of the darkness we feel denies our own culpability and ability to control our choices. But that’s just me.
It may be that Bell is pointing to the deficiencies of questions surrounding ‘intrinsic evil’ (to borrow a phrase from the Currency House blurb), by framing it in an almost supernatural tone: were perpetrators of heinous crimes “swallowed” or possessed by otherwise inexplicable darkness would this exempt them? Or does this merely exempt us as a society from a tacit complicity in criminal behaviour?
This is the microcosm that the play presents, and the blame shifting that occurs surrounding the family and events of the play echo all manner of sophistry we might hear in the public discourse surrounding violent crime. The play is set in Tasmania and writ around the time of the horror of the Port Arthur shootings in 1996. It was said ad nauseum that was the day “Tasmania lost its innocence” (with the usual hand wringing speculation on the murderer Martin Bryant as “monstrous”). To set the record straight, this was far from the first of violent crimes committed in the area, it’s what we don’t talk about which is most revealing about the denial of our collective social conscience. I refer to the massacre the Tasmanian Aboriginal people and theft of their land by what amounted to the governing power in the day.
We as a nation are in the process of reconciling these crimes and I mention it in the context of this play because it relates directly to the notion of taking responsibility for our past actions. We may have committed them in the shroud of colonialism, a kind of formative cultural innocence – but we cannot deny them forever.
This production is aided enormously by the performances, and we will break tradition by examining the cast in some detail. The work they do is a significant element in the impact of the play, both drawing us in and repelling us to complement the script.
If you haven’t seen or read the play, plot spoilers may follow. It is at its heart, a mystery, so I recommend seeing it for the greatest impact.
At the centre of the piece is a nine year old child Lizzie Gael played by Maryellen George. Her portrayal is a conundrum, nearly pure innocence with flickers of childlike mischief belying the horror of what she is accused. When she refers to the “wolf” – it is a truthful fear of being swallowed up. More horrifying is that no-one wants to listen. This contradiction of guilt and naivety is a very nuanced performance that betrays the surface of childish simplicity.
The surrounding adults give almost no indication of a response to these cries for help. They will see her in the simplicity of appearances and facts. The eponymous wolf of her imagination is nothing to be taken seriously, instead they lurk and linger around the edges of what for Lizzie is the explanation they so desperately seek. The exasperation builds from the parents in the face of their daughter’s litany of explanatory secrets and lies. Lucy Miller and David Woodland give a truthful and moving account of this mounting tension and frustration and guilt shifting and eventual estrangement as they consistently fail to find an answer. Only in the final moments do we get a sense that the Wolf is real, with the darkness now consuming the parent as it did the child.
Peter McAllum brings his mellifluous vocal skill to the role of the Police Detective undertaking the thankless task of assessing the young girl’s guilt or innocence. The tensions in his characterisation – manifested from the early scenes where he’s almost bullying Lizzie inside a gaol cell, to their final scene where he’s far more soothing and gentle toward her, having taken an adoptive parental role (if not in officially, at least symbolically on behalf of the state) – capture much of what the play is asking us.
I don’t think there’s much value in the question most of this play’s commentariat seem to be drawn to about “inherent evil” and such. Reading the various responses and even promotional material surrounding the play it’s a recurring theme. Maybe there is such a thing, and maybe there isn’t. The debate will go on for years to come as it has for millenia past. More pressing, as raised by the rather frightening picture of the girl Lizzie taken away from her parents, and condemned to a life of confinement and misery – if an otherwise innocent child commits a crime – what can we do about it? Our systems of justice and rehabilitation in this context seem woefully inadequate.
This play is a dark path, but one worth exploration. Powerful performances highlight a difficult, compelling script and the play is as good as its reputation precedes.
Wolf Lullaby, By Hilary Bell, featuring Maryellen George, Peter McAllum, Lucy Miller, David Woodland. Directed by Emma Louise. Playing at the New Theatre until September 13th 2014.