Brothers Wreck

19 June 2018 | 10:17 pm | Maxim Boon

"An unflinching portrait of the impact of suicide on Indigenous communities."

Dion Williams stars in Brothers Wreck

Dion Williams stars in Brothers Wreck

Please note: this review discusses mental health, suicide and self-harm.

The roots of what is popularly known now as "toxic masculinity" burrow deep into the foundations of contemporary society; so few corners of our daily lives are untouched by the many centuries of patriarchal status quo upon which our modern culture is built. And this mindset — a conscious smothering of empathy and compassion in pursuit of one inflexible mode of being a bloke — is a training that begins young, set to the beat of many mantras: "Man up"; "Boys don't cry"; "Don't be a pussy."

For those who exist in a world of privilege, this behaviour is a fortress, barricading them against the better natures that might otherwise reveal some hint of weakness, or heaven forbid, tenderness and respect. And yet, very similar social pressures in a different cultural context - in this instance, among Australia's First Nations - can be a prison, one in which men feel shamed into emotional paralysis in response to trauma.

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Locking away this internal struggle does not, however, banish the demons. It merely allows them to do their harm out of sight. The result is a mental health crisis that has reached epidemic proportions within Australia's Indigenous community.  The statistics make for grim reading - according to data released in April this year, Aboriginal men are six times more likely to self-harm or die by suicide. But percentages are all too easily overlooked. By contrast, Jada Alberts' guttingly powerful Brothers Wreck offers an unflinching portrait of the impact of suicide on Indigenous communities in a way that is impossible to ignore.

Trapped under the sweltering fug of the Top End's wet season, Darwin's oppressive climate bears down on a family already under pressure. A terrible event has shattered their once close bond: a friend has hung himself with a fishing net in the yard. On the front line of this tragedy, three young adults, barely out of their teens, are left to process an unfathomable horror. Adele (Leonie Whyman) and her boyfriend Jarrod (Nelson Baker) are able to find some solace in each other. But Adele's brother Ruben (Dion Williams) is unable to express his grief in anything other than rage and alcohol abuse. It has gotten him in trouble with the law and made him a local pariah who searches out violent validation at every opportunity. Now a second tragedy looms, and the weight of this unreleased despair threatens to push Ruben towards a similarly devastating fate.

Two elders follow in the footsteps of their forbears to offer guidance, in both traditional and more clinical guises. A court-appointed counsellor (Trevor Jamieson) persistently attempts to reach Ruben, while Ruben's Auntie Petra (Lisa Flanagan) uses a tried and true tactic of tough love to shake him from his self-destruction. But Ruben refuses to acknowledge any vulnerability; the triggers of his implosive mental state will not be easily disarmed. As he stands on the brink, his family do what little they can to prevent another needless loss.

Premiered at Sydney's Belvoir Theatre in 2014 under the direction of Leah Purcell, Alberts has taken the reins for this Malthouse and State Theatre Company Of South Australia co-production, in her directorial debut. Which makes the dexterity and detail of the performances, from her faultlessly cast ensemble, all the more impressive. By far the most remarkable turn comes from Williams, who is able to express both Ruben's rictus-faced aggression and the heartbreaking anguish that lies just beneath it with equal force. It's an account so persuasive, in fact, that it not only legitimises what could be viewed as a rather predictable conclusion, but even makes this cathartic cadence necessary to prevent the show from collapsing under the weight of its own misery.

This production explores a more gestural language of theatre than its Sydney incarnation, both in its mix of performance styles and Dale Ferguson's highly symbolic, precipitous set. Alberts allows subtle moments of physical lyricism to bloom from a theatrical tenor that largely keeps the action anchored in naturalism. It's a highly effective counterpoint that doesn't force too much artifice onto what is a relatively direct narrative. And with this restraint, Alberts also gives her play's semiotics a lightness of touch that keeps the storytelling effortlessly authentic while still honouring an important message. Rather than attempting to fashion this deeply affecting, personally rich production into a lecture, Alberts allows the humanity of these characters to do the heavy lifting, revealing a universality that connects this culturally specific lens to a much broader conversation.

If you or someone you know is in need of crisis support or suicide prevention assistance, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or talk to one of their available crisis support staff. See their website for further details.

Malthouse Theatre and State Theatre Company Of South Australia presents Brothers Wreck until 23 Jun at Cooper's Malthouse, Melbourne, and from 27 Jun at the Odeon Theatre, Adelaide.