The play opens with a gunshot. A mother (Gabrielle Stapleton) and her two daughters (Kimmi Tonkin and Kate Wilkins) have committed a murder, killing a man who has terrorised them for years. Stapleton shot her husband in the neck, the bullet cleaving through his skin and creating a hole that becomes a gruesome fixation for the rest of the play. But there is no remorse to be felt. The killers are angry, and the actors’ powerful voices do wonders to communicate the rage at their former abuser and the horrors he had inflicted upon them.
The plot introduces other characters played by the same three actors, who shift into third-person narratives or different personalities as the scenes require. Stafford’s excellent direction of stage space and movement is instrumental in constructing three-dimensional supporting characters. The story does not restrict itself to the confines of realism, but instead has a fairytale-like tone that relies on the audience’s suspension of disbelief regarding the laws of the process of decay and legal justice. The dialogue is lyrical but obscene, painting vivid pictures of the decapitated corpse and the scavengers that make the body their meal.
Tonkin is the highlight of the show, her exceptional delivery of complex emotions and lines highlighted by her careful facial expressions. Wilkins’ childlike and humorous demeanour adds to the depth of her character, and her talent is showcased when she shifts into the narrative of a different character. Stapleton’s performance of a woman scorned is admirable, expertly portraying her fixation on the decay and gradual dismemberment of her husband’s corpse.
Milly Kynaston’s sound design must also be commended. Suspenseful music collapses after a big reveal, haunting windchimes follow the realisation that a heinous crime has been committed, and the unceasing buzz of flies covering the corpse invokes anticipation and unease in the audience. Sophie Morrissey’s lighting design is instrumental in distinguishing the passage of time, moments of high tension, and the emotional states of the characters.
The Bleeding Tree paints intense relationships through windows of hurt and vulnerability. It is a play that challenges the constructs of masculinity and femininity, of power dynamics between abusers and the abused, of vindictive women and revenge. The Bleeding Tree is a triumph for first-time director Alice Stafford and first-time assistant director Katherine Porritt-Fraser. Produced by Margaret Thanos, Stafford and Porritt-Fraser’s rendition of the play is haunting and heavy, telling an atmospheric story of domestic abuse, murder, and decay.
The Bleeding Tree is being staged from 30 October to 2 November, and 6 to 9 November, 7pm at The Cellar Theatre.
Content warnings for the play: Use of gunshots, references to murder, references to animal cruelty, references to domestic violence, references to violence and gore.