Reviewed by Lucy Lucas
Originally developed through Red Stitch’s INK program Wittenoom is a surreal, mournful collage of memories and moments, a deeply personal and human look at a horrific and ongoing injustice.
The play charts the lives of Dot and Pearl, a mother and daughter who spend Pearl’s childhood in 1960s Wittenoom, a remote asbestos mining town in the North of Western Australia. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, future and past overlapping and intermingling, often literally, with medical appointments in duologue with childhood larks and the ageing and unwell versions of the protagonists interrupting their rose-tinted reveries. This patchwork of memory charts the pairs’ early years in Wittenoom, with Dot as a wild-hearted single mother seeking ecstasy and catharsis at every turn and Pearl as the equally wild bush bashing tom-boy, in turns independent, defiant, and lonely. We watch the two women back and forth in time, in the most recent iteration of their story both suffer from Asbestos related illnesses, their lives a mess of appointments, pain, loss and anger. We flitter in and out of union meetings and interactions with miners and doctors, moments surging forward and then receding like waves, smooth and impossible to fully disentangle from the larger picture.
Mary Anne Butler’s script is dripping with poetic language, filled with twisting, luxurious sentences that take on a songlike quality, especially with the use of repeated phrases. My favourite section details the better days in Wittenoom as Dot and Pearl build lives with and around the young men from across the globe who have come to try and make a future for their families. Whilst Butler’s script is beautifully lyrical it occasionally lost a sense of reality so the energy and momentum of these scenes (and some later moments involving unions and workers’ rights) leapt out in refreshing bursts of theatrical clarity. I deeply appreciated the centring of working-class women in Wittenoom as well as the careful naming of those, such as Dr. Jim McNulty, who worked to halt and undo the damage visited upon the people and landscape of Wittenoom by mining magnates and governments.
Rachel Burke’s lighting design is exquisitely evocative, with her use of colour particularly powerful. Gold and orange glows immediately conjure the epic desert sunsets of Dot and Pearl’s memories. A simple (asbestos) blue wash takes on a malevolent, sinister tone and when coupled with gentle wafts of theatrical haze is positively unnerving. The taste of haze on the tongue and throat creates a visceral link to the constant references to gasping, choking, coughing and wheezing; the language of lung cancer made tangible for just a moment.
Dan Barber’s set is elegant, understated and masterfully realised. It makes excellent use of forced perspective and proximity, providing a sense of Pilbara expansiveness and distance even on the tiny Red Stitch stage. Deceptively simple, the crumbling town sign structure tells its own story whilst providing an interactive and adaptable scaffold for the actors to play on.
And play they do. Both Emily Goddard and Caroline Lee are enchanting actors and give energised and sincere performances. Lee is always breathtaking, and it is a joy to see a sensual, voracious and ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’ type character written for someone other than a twenty-five-year-old. Lee luxuriates in it and the result is a complicated, flawed woman who feels deeply real. Goddard has a slightly harder task, with Pearl going from naïve child through to jaded and terminally ill adult in less than an hour but she rises to the challenge with grace. She is an incredibly raw performer, laying Pearl’s heart and soul bare for us at every turn. My only wish was for some lightness and variation, especially in the beginning – Goddard begins with such an intense lamentation and sense of doom that there is less emotional space for her to move into, and the play begins to feel a little bit samey, though this is a reflection on script and direction as much as performance.
In some ways the intimacy of the storytelling reduces the scope of the tale to the point where it is disconnects from the real Wittenoom’s place in Australian history. The one section that does link the Wittenoom situation to similar, more recent, incidences (Juukan Gorge for example) is unfortunately poorly integrated. Something in the way it is played feels disingenuous – Dot is all of a sudden righteous and angry in a way she has not been about any other experience, not the death of her close friends, her mother’s illness, her own terminal diagnosis. It felt to me as though the script had been finished, an incredibly intimate portrayal of two women’s lives within a huge social calamity and then it was decided it did not link clearly enough to ongoing environmental and social injustices. By including this small monologue about contemporary events, the play tries to be too many things at once – if you are going to engage with the themes of responsibility, land rights and cultural ownership they must be fully or at least more deeply engaged with. Primarily, Wittenoom is an intimate look at the effects of Asbestos mining on two women, and it does this very well – the human story is only one facet of the greater tale but there is no reason a play cannot focus in on a single part of a wider narrative and simply leave the rest to be told another way. As it is I felt almost teased and yearned for more discussion of guilt and responsibility and the role of modern governments and billion-dollar corporations in atoning for environmental degradation in the name of profit (especially as the Wittenoom saga is far from over – google it).
Overall however Wittenoom is a powerful personal story of lost innocence, illness and regret bursting at the seams with brilliant, skilful creatives.