Review: Broken

Chance, pain and connection in a desert landscape

By Lois Maskiell

Horrific vehicle rollovers are not uncommon in the Northern Territory where sudden turns on long stretches of road can, in seconds, result in fatal injuries. In Mary Anne Butler’s Broken, a young woman’s car is overturned on a desert highway and as a result three lives entwine. Emerging from this brutal beginning is a story that unites both exquisite writing and dramatic form to offer a passage through pain and connection in a barren, outback landscape.

This great Australian play which won the $100 000 Victorian Prize for Literature in 2016 is produced by independent company, Lab Kelpie. Under the direction of Susie Dee (SHIT, This is Eden, Caravan), Broken brings together leading talent and demonstrates the company’s unique commitment to presenting new writing.

All unravels when a car is overturned and driver Ash (Naomi Rukavina), an environmental biologist, is trapped inside. Ham (Lyall Brooks), an engineer returning home from a long stint of work, discovers Ash barely breathing and rushes to her aid. Meanwhile, Mia (Sophie Ross) Ham’s partner is experiencing the traumatic miscarriage of their first child. Utterly unaware of his partner’s suffering, Ham is consumed by their disintegrating relationship and finds within Ash an intimacy he has long lived without.

Hoisted on this equal yet tripartite division of character, the plot is a fortress of strength. Though the real seductive power is found in Butler’s breathtaking use of words and expert manipulation of chronological events. Three singular voices harmonise and conflict with each other, venturing into independent monologues, before coming together in shared moments. In one instance, Ham and Mia reminisce about their first meeting and despite occupying different locations, their performances marry with such raw emotion, it is simply astounding.

Susie Dee directs a physically charged production that employs spatial relationships for maximum effect. Guiding the audience and actors through a tangled universe of thoughts and incidents, Dee allows the script to take precedence. Andy Turner’s lighting and Marg Horwell’s set feature a cracked wooden wall through which shards of light burst. It is a beautiful metaphor, for so much in this story is broken that the brief presence of light is all the more striking.

With a script that defies time and staging without props, much of the action is verbally presented as characters offer their own narration. This is a double-edged sword, for on the one hand it characterises the work and its superb writing, while on the other it tips, at times, into telling rather than showing which slows the momentum.

Maven playwright, Mary Anne Butler reveals her brilliance in this exemplary piece of postdramatic theatre by traversing time and space with all but three skilful actors and the power of language. Dancing around chance and an impending sense of fate brought on by the wild landscape, Broken is a spectacular piece of Australian theatre.

Broken is being performed at fortyfivedownstairs 15 – 25 November. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9662 9966.

Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson