Directed by Audrey Sheffield, The Dark Room is a play that doesn’t like to disclose all its secrets at once. Just as one adjusts to the absence of light over time, so the essence of Angela Betzien’s play becomes clearer the deeper it goes. Three narratives take place the same location – a remote motel room in Australia. This isn’t the world of Neighbours, Home & Away or those other soaps. This is the economically-deprived Northern Territory – sparesly populated and under-resourced. Every country has a region that has borne the brunt of being forgotten. It is in this world of hopelessness and anger that the play begins.
Social worker Anni (Katy Brittain) brings Grace (Annabel Smith) to the motel room one evening, after receiving a call from her. Wearing a pillowcase over her face, with eyes cut out and corners twisted to resemble a dog’s ears, Grace is uncooperative and exhibits signs of distrust. The second narrative involves policeman Stephen (Tamlyn Henderson) and his pregnant wife Emma (Fiona Skinner). Retuning from a wedding reception, Emma isn’t best pleased that Stephen plans to go out again for further drinks with the groom and friends at a club. However, there’s more to Stephen’s drinking than meets the eye and Emma has an inkling of what’s eating him away too. Then there’s Craig (Alasdair Craig), Stephen’s friend from work. While pleasantries are exchanged between them and departmental rumours are discussed, Craig is really sounding Stephen out and letting him know he knows about his past…
Let down by her mother and the State, the character of Grace has endured great hardships, and understandably shuns most human contact. While some would refer to her behaviour as ‘feral’, she has been shown little ‘humanity’ to emulate. On the surface Grace seems to push Anni away, but it’s the ‘temporary solution’ that she’s rejecting, not her. She wants nothing more than to spend time with Anni in her own home where she knows she will be loved. Anni’s own demeanour is professional, but she’s obviously struggling with her own defences, wanting to tear them down so she can be the mother Grace craves for.
Parenthood and duty of care are also important themes with Stephen’s and Emma’s thread. As a former policewoman, Emma knows the sort of ‘problem children’ Stephen encounters on a daily basis and how it changes you. But now he’s to be a father to their child. Only he’s seldom present in body and mind, lost to guilt which he tries to obfuscate with alcohol.
Closest of all to the heart of the play is Craig, who is plagued by guilt of a different kind. As a well-known and respected member of the community, he takes pride in being a father figure, but his ‘relationship’ with one particular aboriginal youth makes him question how well he knows himself…
Australia has a chequered history with those in its care, a history that successive British goverments are equally to blame for. From the 1940s to 1970, children from the underclasses were routinely sent to Australia by the British government, without parents’ knowledge or consent. The ‘care’ the children received upon led to them left them vulnerable to mistreatment, forced labour and rape. Running for a similar amount of time, it was the policy of the appointed ‘Protectors of Aborigines’ to remove children of dual heritage (Caucasian and Aborigine) and house them in remote camps. Dictating who they could marry, eventually they would be ‘bred out’. Obviously this stopped 45+ years ago, but as the play indirectly hints at, the ramifications of this can still be felt and without an adequate infrastructure in place, the offspring of these lost generations will be forgotten about too – the unacknowledged ‘dirty secret’ of society.
© Michael Davis 2017
The Dark Room runs at Theatre503 until 2nd December.