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Theatre Review: Dead Man Brake

As the darkened stage comes to life, light picks out the statuesque form of a woman (Sabryna Te’o) who is to preside over the ensuing stage action, moving gracefully between and around the characters as they speak of their turmoil and distress. Raising her arms in evocation she sings of “the treasures of darkness” and “the pleasures of stillness” presenting to us the age-old mystery, catharsis, whereby the audience watches individual suffering with horror and pity to be eventually uplifted by their recognition, “the strange and deep perception”, that in suffering there is “insightful gain”.

There follows a stunning simulation, through victims’ terrified recollections and dramatic deployment of sound effects, of the full horror of being a passenger, vulnerable, powerless, in a train travelling in excess of 100 kph as it derails. It was as if “the planet slipped off orbit”, and in the 6.8 seconds it took to happen, snatched the lives of seven, shattered the lives of not only the bereaved but also of the survivors and took its toll upon rescue and trauma management personnel. Included in the human cost, is the 113 days taken by a Special Commission of Inquiry (Philip Hinton as wonderfully irascible McInerney, J) to conclude that a combination of human error, technological failure and a weak safety culture led to the disaster.

Such a conclusion answers the question “how” but not the larger question of “why” asked by the bereaved and the survivors. “Why did the system let this happen to me?” is one such issue. The hypothesis that compromise is inherent in a complex system offered by PhD candidate, Catherine Kelly (Alicia Battestini), is shown as the emptiest of offerings in a face-to-face interview with Nonee Walsh (a convincing Katrina Retallick), a severely injured and courageous victim of that “compromise”. “Why was I there?” is personal concern of those involved. Nonee questions why she was on that particular train when usually she caught an earlier one and Johnnie (an engaging Nicholas Brown) ought not to have been travelling on the train at all but for a rearranged schedule. Such a question raises the notion of personal destiny, while the train-driver’s Aunt Olga with whom he had a special bond, and who experienced “a wind, a noise and pressure” at the exact moment of the crash, touches upon the notion of catastrophe as cosmic disturbance.

The troubled Salvation Army trauma manager (again Phillip Hinton) has no convenient answers, but points to the need to acknowledge a spiritual dimension in the understanding of why such events happen at all. The stark set (James Clark), while effectively used as a court room and to orchestrate the positioning of the characters, is a constant reminder of the limited speed curve that shattered lives yet brought those involved to confront themselves and towards a deeper sense of community. The tension, the knottedness of their circumstances, appropriately graffitied onto the back wall as if inscribed into the nervous system of those involved, cannot be forgotten, but can be shown in a different light.

The seven characters, including Drayton Morley, all gave exceptionally fine-tuned performances. There are special moments: the sadness of the overlooked train-driver’s mother (again Alicia Battestini), and the uneasy almost bafflement of the guard (Gerrard Carroll), and the most special of all, the final, reprised song of the presiding spirit resonant now with pity and with love.

Most fittingly, the components of individual song, ritualised unison and movement, were strongly and fittingly reminiscent of a requiem service, and in this ingenious referencing the production does indeed bring a profound repose in the wake of grief.



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