Wittenoom – Theatre Review

Wittenoom is a story written by Mary Ann Butler about a mother and daughter that weaves the optimism of their early lives and the eventual devastation that engulfed their lives.

The town of Wittenoom is a dark part of Australian history that I’ve been completely ignorant about. I knew The Midnight Oil song, ‘Blue Sky Mine’ but never knew the whole story behind it, or how much the people working in the mines surrounding the town of Wittenoom, had been let down by the people in power.

The stage at Red Stitch isn’t a large one, the set by Dann Barber is a dilapidated sign that once would have read “Welcome to Wittenoom” but pieces have fallen away and its original text is almost illegible, making for an eerie sight. Wittenoom doesn’t have a large cast either, with only two performers playing a mother and daughter, spanning their time living in Wittenoom to the aftermath of the year after they have left.

Dot, played by Caroline Lee, is the mother constantly seeking passion in every aspect of life in this mining town. The contrast to this is her daughter Pearl, played by Emily Goddard, who feels like an outsider and sometimes, a victim of her mother’s reckless actions. The chemistry between the two really feels like a family, they bicker believably like a mother and daughter would, but the love they have for each other feels real. As they conversed with each other, there were moments that felt like I was watching in on an intimate conversation rather than watching actors on stage as a member of the audience.

The direction by Susie Dee uses the stationary set piece to transition through time, going from Wittenoom to the current moments in the characters’ life. The optimistic scenes in Wittenoom have the characters bathed in a warm light, speaking to the audience with a monologue filled with hope and sense of security that everything will be okay.

As the reality of the situation looms, the light turns blue and is almost non-existent. The characters would cast a looming shadow, as their monologues darken, any feeling of hope I had for the two was almost gone. The actors’ performances were enhanced so much due to the lighting by Rachel Burke. Using certain lighting on Lee would fill me with so much sorrow, empathetically feeling an intense sadness for her character, Dot.

Lee could go from joy-filled to haunted as soon as the lights changed, with the lighting accenting every muscle of her face, which was visible from my seat. As Dot, her jokes would never miss, her smile incredibly infectious and effervescent while enthusiastically retelling stories to us, or Pearl about her exploits. So much of Lee’s performance needed Goddard to be as perfect as she was, and she was.

Goddard’s Pearl is only a young girl when we first meet her. She’s spunky and filled with vigour, joyfully sharing tales about playing with the local boys, and her growth to the young woman that makes her mother and the audience proud. Goddard’s performance, from the top of her head to the tip her toes she plays Pearl with a passion and with Lee, it feel like their performance is filled with emotion and empathy for the victims of the story they are telling.

Butler has created something very powerful with Wittenoom, a perfect way to teach people about a factor of Australian history that some might be ignorant about. The direction by Susie Dee grasps absolutely every emotion from the actors, the story hinges on their performance, and Caroline Lee and Emily Goddard are beyond perfection, filling the room with whatever emotion they wanted us to feel.

Wittenoom is a masterclass on all aspects of theatre, never shying away from the real events that inspired the screenplay, telling a compelling story and hopefully educating people about something that should always be told and never be forgotten.

Wittenoom is playing at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre until February 19th.
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Photography by Jodie Hutchinson.

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