Theatre review: Coldhands, RUMPUS

A play about the nature of destruction and sacrifice set in an immersive post-apocalyptic world.

Coldhands – a recent work by Dora Abraham now showing at Adelaide’s RUMPUS theatre – transports us to an unfamiliar world, with the aim of opening our eyes to issues that need urgent attention in our own. It was the winner of the 2020 Flinders University Young Playwright’s Award.

The inhabitants of this land are surviving in a depleted and changed climate, though some dismiss the idea that things could be different as a myth (sound familiar?). We follow a Mother figure who holds wisdom and stories from the old days, a sick Girl with a secret power (her touch can turn things to gold: a substance that once filled the sky, sea and land before it was stolen by the Aurum Daemon) and a solitary Hunter. As the play opens, the three become reluctant allies in their desperation to escape capture by a hunting party combing the forest for human sacrifices.  

A highlight of the production is the thoughtfulness put into the extraordinary set, props, soundscape and other elements that bring this fantasy world to life. The audience sit on both sides of a pathway that leads toward a raised sacrificial alter and demonic portal ringed with barren trees, the sinister effect of which is heightened by recordings of crazed, clamorous voices. At the other end of the path, a humble campsite is the setting for quieter scenes of day-to-day survival. The gutting and skinning of a stuffed-toy squirrel is a delightfully grisly detail. 

The three young actors are an engaging trio. Bonet Leate (as the Mother) and Danielle Lim (as the Girl) are both making their professional theatre debuts in this production. Lim brings a light-hearted playfulness to an otherwise dark story, while Leate is calm and assured. Sam Lau gives a particularly strong performance as the Hunter, exploring his character’s complex motives and relationship to the land. 

Covering all the necessary facts of a fantasy world’s mythology, social structure and history is never easy, particularly when one doesn’t have the luxury of an epic runtime followed by spin-offs and sequels. Many points remain unclear (the origin of the Girl’s power and the significance of her illness, for instance, and the extent to which the townsfolk are complicit in the damage done to their land by the Daemon).

The plot is difficult to follow at times and the implications of the ending, in particular, are obscure. Coldhands is described as a ‘response to the climate crisis’, but it is challenging to draw specific insights about this issue from the play, aside from a general sentiment that blind, greedy destruction is bad.  

Read: Book review: Best Australian Science Writing 2022, edited by Ivy Shih

Despite the vague messaging, it is a beautifully staged production that is memorable for its immersive, sensory approach to world-building.

By Dora Abraham
Director: Zola Allen
Stage Manager: Grace Calabretto
Lighting Design: Kobe Donaldson
Assistant director: Katherine Sortini
Sound Design: Antoine Jelk
Composer: Alex Mader
Designer: Ellanna Murphy
Cast: Bonet Leate, Danielle Lim, Sam Lau

Tickets: $24-$28

Coldhands will be performed until 4 December 2022.

Megan Koch is a writer and bookseller based in Adelaide. She studied English and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University.