Acclaimed playwright Vanessa Bates distinctly remembers the day she was invited by Newcastle theatre company Stooged to direct their next production.
Whilst that moment may have passed her by many months ago, the emotions that the script first aroused for Bates are still the easiest to identify. Now only days away from opening, The Dark Room, by Angela Betzien, at the Civic Playhouse on Wednesday, August 1, Bates has remained as adamant as ever about the social and political importance of the play.
“As a playwright I think it is an extraordinary and brave piece of writing,” Bates says. “Angela has done something very powerful here. In weaving together the stories being told in this play, she has created a work that for theatre makers is very challenging and exciting”.
A significant part of what makes The Dark Room so pertinent to any audience, especially a contemporary Australian one, is the familiarity of the themes it explores. As Bates has observed, the play may be set in the Northern Territory but its characters symbolise a marginalisation that is universal.
“The issues raised by this work do not exist in a glass box. They affect the Territory as much as they do our community here in Newcastle. I think what Angela has done with this play is show how compassion and courage can be the lights that shine through any dark place anywhere.”
In vying to find these lights, amidst a mood as foreboding as the landscape that surrounds it, The Dark Room depicts the intersecting fates of Grace, an adolescent girl with only her state carer Anni for company, a young couple displaced by location and circumstance, and a menacing Territory policeman on the opposite side of the law.
Following the uncovering of these characters guides the audience through the same dark and challenging places to which Bates refers – those that have persistently remained in the shadows of our conscience and off the collective records of our national conversation.
Despite several ineffectual and sometimes misguided political efforts, such as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the 2007 Howard government intervention, vulnerable young Australians living in isolated and dysfunctional social environments continue to be let down by the very systems established to protect them.
As if by some ironic coincidence, the freshest of revelations - of systemic police brutality involving an Aboriginal minor – surfaced during the same week that Bates spoke to me about the play. Although The Dark Room was first produced in 2009, it is almost as if Angela Betzien finished writing it only yesterday.
It is an irony that is not lost on Mark Pegler, the Sydney-based actor cast by Bates to play the policeman Craig.
“For me”, Pegler says, “this is a play that asks its audience a simple question: What has changed?”
So frequently did news items emerge that were relevant to their production, Pegler remembers, that throughout the rehearsal period cast members found themselves referencing material that had just emerged in the news.
“Seemingly every week one of us was sharing a contemporary aspect of the work that had been recently uncovered”, Pegler says. “It’s one of the reasons that this such an intriguing play.”
Undoubtedly one of the other reasons The Dark Room continues to be such an engaging piece of Australian theatre is the deftness with which the playwright has created authentic and emotionally intricate characters. For Pegler, convincingly bringing to life the character of Craig has required him to appreciate the Territory cop as much more than an intimidating man behind the badge.
“As a character Craig is a product of an old school pragmatism that has been inherent to policing” Pegler says. “His approach to his work derives from an attitude that is inter-generational. But he is more than a self-serving man. I think he genuinely believes that he is a valuable member of the community. But eventually, of course, he takes things one step too far.”
As the consequences of him taking these steps reverberate through the final moments of the play, director Vanessa Bates hopes and expects a visceral response from the theatre audience.
“This play definitely asks provocative questions” says Vanessa. “We are all hoping that the play inspires a dialogue that centres on the issues it raises.”