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POSTED: 21 APRIL 2011

Dirtyland, by Elise Hearst | Directed by Paige Rattray

Arthur, in association with The Spare Room | New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney | Until 7 May

The title says it all. Elise Hearst’s Dirtyland examines the grubbiness, squalor and muck of the aftermath of a massacre. It does so in the middle of a parched field where nothing grows any more, a constant reminder to the survivors of this tragedy — as if they need reminding.

Dirtyland is the first offering in New Theatre’s The Spare Room season, devoted to promoting independent works and supporting artists in creating exciting, challenging theatre. If the rest of the season is of the same quality, we’re in for an absolute treat.

Anya (Megan Holloway) has a sore tooth. Obsessed with leaving her hometown to ostensibly seek treatment — but also to escape, hopefully forever, the remains of her dirty land — she engages the help of Moses (Marcus McKenzie) and Harry (Gabriel Fancourt).

A rough trio, defined by crude passion, anger and small hope, they seek out the payment required by Kaminski, the one who arranges passage out of town. They need mirrors. Seems simple enough, but mirrors are rare, distracting and disturbing items. After all, what do you see when you look in a mirror, when you are a survivor of a carnage that claimed half the town? And what of your role in that carnage?

This is energising, disturbing, at times perplexing theatre. The stage is covered in — of course — dirt. The actors roll in it, throw it, dig through it. Disconcerting movement occurs in the shadows. As lights focus on one aspect, others look on.

Surrounding this complex, brutal, and at times very funny production is a brilliant soundscape by Joseph Nizeti and Marcus Whale. It helps creates an atmosphere of barely disguised threat and desperation.

Director Paige Rattray has assembled a committed cast who throw themselves (quite literally) into their roles. The actors play out scenes that require unflinching bravery to make them work — and they do it very well. Dialogue — after a shaky opening scene — is fluid, tight and clever.

Playwright Hearst also takes on the role of Renya, a workmate of Harry’s mother Aviva (Lucy Miller, in wonderful cougar-like style). Hearst displays excellent comic timing and flair as both performer and creator. I foresee a great future there.

Add in the brilliant Netta Yashchin as cackling, borderline hysteric Mrs Brown and the tragic mute Frieda (Tami Sussman) and you have an ensemble of strength, talent and energy.

This dirty land is worth a visit.

All images: © Jack Toohey 2011.

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