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June 16, 2009 | by  | in Arts Theatre | [ssba]

The Blackening

The Blackening by Paul Rothwell
BATS Theatre, 7pm, 10-27 June 2009

Paul Rothwell’s The Blackening, opened at BATS last week in a superb production, directed by Paul McLaughlin.
Entering the theatre we wandered into an ominous, slightly surreal orchard. Each aspect of design is blended in such harmony, that it was only when I turned my mind specifically to deciphering what elements were creating this disquieting atmosphere that I was able to place each of them. Stephen Gallagher’s soundscape, Jennifer Lal’s lighting and Tony De Goldi’s set develop an eerie environment, which with the consistently strong acting, tells this chilling tale.

Mal, in a complex characterization by Jed Brophy, arrives home to his two brothers and the orchard where they grew up to find his youngest brother, Broody, to be just as he remembers him ten years ago. Jack Shadbolt’s strong performance captures the innocence of the nineteen-year-old Broody, who has had a mental age of nine, since he fell out of an apple tree he climbed to look up the road, hoping for Mal’s return.

Jonny Moffatt effectively portrays Dan, the seemingly straight up and down honest brother who has kept the orchard running and looked after Broody, who we gradually realise is not such a simple character as we may have put him down to be.

Symbolic staging is established from the beginning and theatrical conventions gradually blur with the dream like narrative, which keeps the audience engaged as we struggle to make sense of the world as it exists for these three brothers. Since the opening of this production, I’ve heard some audience members express discontent at the staging conventions (role doubling etc) confusing with the symbolism in the narrative, making the plot hard to follow. However, I found this served to intensify my understanding of the text, in which much of the pleasure lies in attempting to decipher this world. A slight exception to this might be the “symbolic” dog (a fox fur stole) that we can accept as a bundle of fur curled up in a basket, until suddenly, with no change to her limp body, she is dead and her carcass is cruelly personified by Mal either to taunt, comfort or delight Broody. This disturbing moment distracts from the more interesting relationships rather than adding any depth.

All in all, this production is strong in every aspect to realise Rothwell’s deeply compelling text that implores us to question our values and world view on a very personal level.

Reviewed by Fiona McNamara


About the Author ()

Fiona was named "Recessionista" in the ASPA Fashion Awards 2009 for her Takaka op-shop frock and spray painted shoes. She co-edits the arts section and also likes to write about women and other stuff.

Comments (10)

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  1. Paul McLaughlin says:

    Cheers Fiona.

    This was a very complex piece to translate from stage to page and I was at pains not to spell every little detail out to patrons coming along. There’a a lot going on in this play.

    The ‘role doubling’ as mentioned above is a great example, and a challenge to theatre-makers today. This play calls for some CHARACTERS within the play to play other roles – as distinct from a choice as director to have ACTORS play more than one role – usually a fiscal constraint. It’s a pity that audiences are so used to the laboured convention now of actors playing more than one role(yawn)leading some theatre-goers to jump to the wrong conclusion when seeing THE BLACKENING.

    This is a play about shifting perceptions. Come see it with an open mind and it will reward you greatly. Plays till the 27th.

  2. Baffled says:

    The great thing about Bats is that plays are hit or miss. Sometimes they are surprisingly good, sometimes surprisingly bad. The Blackening surprised me by being the worst play I have ever seen! The dialogue was hackneyed and clichéd, not to mention laboured and unnatural. The writer all but bludgeons his audience over the head with excruciatingly obvious symbolism (a poisoned apple, anyone?) and appears not to give them any credit for having had any prior exposure whatsoever to literature. The cast battles on valiantly, despite the mentally-handicapped character Broody being apparently based on Ben Stiller’s Simple Jack, as featured in Tropic Thunder. The staging was very good and unfortunately raised my expectations, but Fiona, if you feel this play forced you to ‘question your values and world view’ then I fear you need to see a health professional. (Apologies for not using my real name but I don’t want to offend the person who invited me along).

  3. fwendy wendy says:

    Thanks baffled, I was seriously considering going to see th at, but no longer.

  4. James says:

    I thought the acting was superb, the set suitably haunted, and the script not only kept me guessing til the end but left me with plenty to think on afterwards. Baffled, if this was the worst play you’ve ever seen, then I fear you need to get out more!

  5. Fiona says:

    Thanks for your comments, Paul.

    Baffled: I find your comments to be a close-minded over simplification of this play.

    Although I have little directly in common with these characters or their story, I do have family and I do have people that I love. Watching someone else’s story can be an effective way to explore universal themes of love and loyalty in abstract to your own life and community.

    Instead of looking at the play on one level, try delving deeper to and open up your mind to what you class as ‘symbolism’. If you pay closer attention to what you dismiss as ‘unnatural’ you may find many different potential meanings and interpretations that lie within the text, which leaves room also for the production to further develop ideas to allow the audience to draw their own conclusions.

    I firmly agree with Paul that “There’s a lot going on in this play” and I encourage you to get along before it closes on Saturday.

    Fwendy wendy- fair enough that you might wait to hear others’ opinions before going along to everything, but I do find it odd that you have completely changed your mind from “seriously considering” attending a play to definitely not going, based on one anonymous review comment. All up this production has had excellent audience feedback and at least four good reviews. You can read three others here:

    I encourage you all to attend before it closes this week and form your own opinion.

  6. Baffled says:

    Hello. I have been reflecting on why I reacted so negatively to this play, so to log in and read your comments (James and Fiona) was genuinely insightful. My fundamental problem though is that what I guess to be the intended human truths of the play do not stack up for me. Justifiably, you take my opinions to be close-minded but this is untrue. What I feel the play lacked was nuance and complexity in its characters and how they articulated their presumably confused emotions. I feel it is the playwrite who needs to get out more, not me!

  7. Corus says:

    Baffled – couldn’t agree more. Nothing like a bunch of ‘symbols’ and artificially manufactured complications to give an impression of depth and substance, but all this was quickly exposed as a thin tissue of inconsequential ramblings. Perhaps the reason people like Fiona insist there is more going (and feel the need to point out lesser beings’ inability to realise this) is that they feel silly for being temporarily fooled. It’s our duty to tell the Emperor to put his clothes back on!

  8. Baffled says:

    Corus, you just made my day. Fiona I found your attitude incredibly condescending (dare I say “close-minded”?) but didn’t want to go there as I suspected I had already irked you with my opinions.

    As you continue to develop as an art critic (see how easy it is to be condescending?), you may wish to remember that just because you ask the right questions of a work, it will not always yield the right answers, nor perhaps any answers at all, and to admit this is not a weakness in you, but in the work itself.

  9. jedi says:

    well theatre i believe has a resposibility to incite debate. and it seems this production has certainly done that. Theatre isnt just a mirror of real life but a theatrical analogy. What was so great about being in this play was that it was unsettling and unusual and not shortland street style spell it out in block letters, bless its heart.
    We as performers welcome the controversy, the debate , the supposed literary superiority,and of course if everybody felt the same way about their experience it would be kinda boring . I loved that you all went away and had a think about how it affected or didnt affect you , how you loved the contrivance or hated it. Theatre can polarise people, but if it annoys you, at least you are feeling something.Theatre is at its best when it gets you to do some of the work yourself, it is a relationship between audience and performers. I felt some of your annoyance. It was palpable from the stage. The heavy sighs, the watch watching the loud seat shuffling, We loved you for it. Even if the others watching as well wanted to throttle you.
    But remember It is just one writers view of a moment in time and a group who came together to put his vision , his Ideas his concept into a theatrical setting.We have become so used to televisions cathartic drone that we no are longer confronted with things that disturb us, things that bug us, we no longer get up in arms and ask for our money back. We have been dumbed down. So the fact that it has got you all talking about what you did or didnt like or get or the things you loved says to me ….job well done.
    On a personel note This play pushed me as a performer into area’s of unease i have not experienced for a long time. Thanks paul and the cast and crew. It was a salient moment in time..Nugh said.

  10. Jonny Moffatt says:

    Baffled, did I invite you along?

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