Emily Goddard and Caroline Lee feature in WittenoomSqueezed into the tight confines of Red Stitch Theatre is a large-scale patchwork wooden sign. Despite faded paint and missing wood panels, the name written on the sign is unmistakable – it’s ‘Wittenoom’, the now defunct town 1100km north east of Perth and the site of the greatest occupational health and safety tragedy in Australia’s history.

It’s also the name of Mary-Anne Butler’s newest play, which follows mother and daughter Dot (Caroline Lee) and Pearl (Emily Goddard) as they navigate this tragic event.

Her second collaboration with director Susie Dee after her 2018 prize-winning Broken, this 65-minute two hander is an ambitious and often affecting staging of the losses that characterise the story of Wittenoom. Like Broken, it is written with the poetic flare that has come to define Butler’s work.

Yet here her evocative writing often seems stretched thin. In attempting to accommodate both historical detail and the experience of her characters within her figurative style of writing, Butler dampens the emotional acuity of the show’s central relationship.

For over thirty years, the town of Wittenoom was the centre of asbestos mining in Australia. Until, in 1966, when the effects of asbestos poisoning came to light and the mine was quickly abandoned. Since then and over 2000 former residents have died from the pleural mesothelioma that results from prolonged exposure to asbestos fibres.

In Butler’s Wittenoom, we first encounter the town in its heyday. Tourists and residents crowd the annual Wittenoom Ball, wander to the local Gorge or to the pub. Single mum, Dot was drawn to town by the promise of a new life.

Bawdy and free-wheeling, she finds sexual liberation while hopping from job to job. Meanwhile her daughter, fifteen year-old Pearl, slides down asbestos tailings, a self-admitted tom boy.

Yet there is a lingering threat shadowing this festive opening, one that Set Designer Dann Barber evokes perfectly. Scores of crumpled wattle pepper the floor while every rafter of the lumbering wooden sign of Wittenoom is piled with a pale blue dust that trickles down at the slightest touch.

Like ‘cosmic dust’, as Pearl says of the asbestos-filled air of Wittenoom. All the while, scenes are interspersed with flash forwards that follow Dot’s Stage 3 mesothelioma diagnosis and the increasingly creative steps she takes to cure an incurable illness.

Butler’s poeticism works best during evocations of the Wittenoom landscape. Her poetic flourishes sing as Dot and Pearl stare out at a town of ‘blue-paved streets’, squealing fruit bats and towering ghost gums.

Here, they seem absorbed into the landscape of Wittenoom itself, stripped of their specific characterisation and made a part of the town’s all-encompassing tragedy that Butler’s poeticism represents so effectively.

It is unsurprising that one of the play’s final scenes shows Dot aching to return to the town. The lines between land and self are blurred by Butler’s style, which often maintains a similarly dense vocabulary and cadence despite changes in character or time period.

But this also exposes the wider problem that Butler’s poeticism rarely changes depending on the character speaking, a weakness unaided by the few conventionally realistic scenes that appear throughout the play.

In one such scene, Dot struggles to express herself to her Doctor and looks to Pearl – whom she describes as a ‘dictionary on legs’ – to give her the kind of language that, seconds later, she will end up employing in a monologue.

A tension starts to emerge, then, as more scenes put forward an idea of how each character speaks that their subsequent monologues contradict. A reading that might insist on each character’s poeticism as purely theatrical is similarly curtailed by the possible realistic justifications offered by these scenes.

Is it this poeticism a purely theatrical conceit or does Pearl simply have the propensity for such language, as her mother tells us? In other words, there is an implication teased with throughout the show that positions Butler’s poeticism as a quirk of character and not just of theatre.

But as both Dot and Pearl continue to use similar vocabulary and styles of speech, the extent of this individual specificity is itself contradicted. The lack of clarity surrounding the function of the script’s incohesive poetic sensibility ultimately hinders our understanding of each character as individuals.

There is concerted pressure on actors to find ways to give an impression of character individuality in their performances as a result. Emily Goddard is particularly skilled in this regard. In physicality and intonation she individualises Pearl.

Though her performance of adolescence seems less suited to the intimate confines of Red Stitch Theatre, as Pearl grows up, we watch Goddard’s body language develop and her speech patterns change even as the style of her language remains largely the same.

Lee has a more difficult task on her hands in the absence of a coming-of-age narrative arc. The deep timbre of her voice gives her rendition of Dot an easy authority that complements the Gothic atmosphere evoked by Butler’s writing and Barber’s set design perfectly.

Yet, when we come to her tragic ending, much of the pathos seems muted; a result, I think, of Butler’s language limiting our ability to access what is specific about Dot’s encounter with her illness and Goddard struggling to evoke this specificity by way of changes in physicality or voice.

Still, scenes where Lee and Goddard address – and more often, argue – with each other are among the play’s best. And, similar to Butler’s evocations of Wittenoom, her writing of Lee’s illness is heart-wrenchingly beautiful when taken on its own.

Direction by Susie Dee is restrained and minimalistic, offering simple tableaux and subtle blocking that allows the actors to make the most of the sparsity of the stage. Occasional moments of choreography and abstract physicality performed in unison are evocative, though Goddard appears more confident in these sequences than Lee.

Ian Moorhead’s Sound Design begins with a chorus of baritone-heavy voices before transitioning into classical-style orchestrations. It’s a perfect addition; the menace of a Greek Chorus exacerbating the threat against these characters before a lyrical piano melody helps transition to a more melancholic accompaniment to their losses. It was a shame more wasn’t made of Moorhead’s compositions to better signal the script’s complex tonal shifts.

Like the lingering ink on the wooden sign that looms large at the centre of this production, the memory of Wittenoom remains imprinted in the memories of many Australians. Deaths related to the Wittenoom disaster continue, alongside the fight to return the sullied land to its former glory by its original custodians; the Banjima people.

It’s a ceaseless tragedy, and Butler’s work represents its ongoing legacies in a way that lingers long after the final bow. Despite inconsistencies, it offers an ambitious start to Red Stitch Theatre’s 2023 season.

Red Stitch Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, East St Kilda
Performance: Wednesday 1 February 2023
Season continues to 19 February 2023
Information and Bookings: www.redstitch.net

Image: Emily Goddard and Caroline Lee feature in Wittenoom photo by Jodie Hutchinson

Review: Guy Webster