Theatre Review: Brothers Wreck, Subiaco Arts Centre

The ties that bind after a tragic loss are examined in exquisite detail in this WA production of Jada Alberts’ finely crafted play.
Two young men wearing blue short-sleeve tops. One is in the centre of the frame with his arms wide apart and his mouth open. The other is standing on the right side looking down at his phone.

*This review contains discussion of suicide, which may be confronting for some readers.

When you think about how the term “wrecked” is used in everyday vernacular, it’s usually to express feelings of utter exhaustion… “I’m worn out”, “I’m done” or, the slightly more old-fashioned version, “I’m bushed”.

But for playwright Jada Alberts – a Larrakia, Bardi, Wadaman and Yanuwa artist, originally from Darwin – this term carries more profound associations and these have served them well in their poetic crafting of their emotionally confronting, but ultimately heart-filled play, Brothers Wreck.

Written in 2014 and first presented it at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre the same year, Alberts’ play has gone on to have seasons with several major Australian theatre companies, but has never been seen in WA. This Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company season, directed by Artistic Director Maitland Schnaars, assisted by Bruce Denny, is therefore an important WA debut.

Its story centres on the life of a 21-year-old Aboriginal man named Ruben (in this production played by emerging WA actor Tyren Maclou) and the series of “wrecks” that lie in his path.

When we first meet Ruben he is sitting motionless against an outside wall, staring blankly into the distance in total silence, except for a few twittering birds and the occasional chirping insect in the background (effects nicely crafted by sound designer Rachael Dease). 

Ruben’s sister Adele (Jessie Ward) and his sister’s partner Jarrod (Mark Nannup) soon appear, and once they set eyes on what Ruben has seen, they start screaming chaotically towards the horizon. 

‘No! Joe… Someone please, get him down!’.

Ruben, meanwhile, stays glued to the ground and his empty expression does not budge an inch.

It’s no spoiler to say this opening scene depicts this small family’s awful discovery of their brother Joe’s death by suicide. The remainder of the play shows this family – young Ruben in particular – as they deal with grief, anger, denial and some spiralling choices that pull Ruben further from his family and drag him away from who he wants to be.

Alberts’ script is a masterstroke in storytelling, filled with pacey dialogue, poetic sequencing and touches of humour – all of which are in safe hands in this production under the direction of Schnaars and Denny.

Aside from its script, its standout strengths lie most obviously in the onstage energies brought by two of its five actors. While each of the actors has their own moments to shine, the vigorous, polished performances by young Aboriginal/ South African performer Maclou as Ruben) and Yamatji Noongar actor Nannup as Ruben’s close friend Jarrod, are unmatched.

Maclou is currently a third year acting student at WAAPA, but already he shows well-honed, precise stagecraft and brings much sensitivity to his extended dialogue scenes. Supporting him in fine style is Nannup, whose portrayal of Jarrod presents him as a solid rock to his friend Ruben’s broken existence. 

The pair’s physicality is also a brilliant match. As we watch Maclou’s tall frame mellifluously bend, tumble and throw swings across the stage – mouthing off and raging wildly against the world – Nannup’s presence is by contrast, steady and solid, with unflinchingly vocal force.

The chemistry between them brings the audience intimately close to their pain, as they unleash their demons and create firestorms in their attempts to keep other more traumatic feelings bound up tightly inside. Theirs is an unparalleled brotherhood that, in this production at least, is the work’s central pillar and is its most resonant quality. 

Other elements, such as Bryan Woltjen’s weather-beaten Darwin home stage set and Mark Howett’s lighting, add more layers of potent meaning – from the dingy street-light that towers over a small shrine to Ruben’s dead brother, to the red-blue wash of light from a passing police car over faces in the dark and the glare of torchlights as a loved one is searched for in the wilderness – all add emotional heft to key scenes.

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Overall, these design choices combine with some excellent acting performances for powerful effect. But these energies are not achieved consistently throughout, which means some of the production’s weighty themes are not explored in full depth. That said, there is a lot of warmth on offer in this important story that prompts us to look with closer eyes at some of the hardest realities many in our country are dealing with today. For that chance, it’s well worth it.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts
Presented by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company
Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth

Director: Maitland Schnaars
Assistant Director: Bruce Denny
Set and Costume Designer: Bryan Woltjen
Composer and Sound Designer: Rachael Dease
Lighting Designer: Mark Howett
Assistant Lighting Designer: Matthew Erren
Stage Manager: Sue Fenty
Assistant Stage Manager: Kira Feeney
Wardrobe Assistant: Meg Parker

Cast: Tyren Maclou, Della Rae Morrison, Mark Nannup, Jessie Ward and Rubeun Yorkshire

For crisis support and suicide prevention: Lifeline

Brothers Wreck will be performed until 20 July 2024.

ArtsHub's Arts Feature Writer Jo Pickup is based in Perth. An arts writer and manager, she has worked as a journalist and broadcaster for media such as the ABC, RTRFM and The West Australian newspaper, contributing media content and commentary on art, culture and design. She has also worked for arts organisations such as Fremantle Arts Centre, STRUT dance, and the Aboriginal Arts Centre Hub of WA, as well as being a sessional arts lecturer at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).