Theatre review: Wittenoom, Red Stitch Actors Theatre

Mesothelioma in a mining town in WA is sensitively handled in this two-hander.

Wittenoom is an affecting and effective two-hander that tells a poignant story of a mother-daughter duo who watch their small Western Australian town grapple with the mesothelioma that decimates it, ask questions of the mining company that are accountable for it and find solace in their love for each other. 

The play is effectively a long duologue between Pearl (Emily Goddard) and Dot (Caroline Lee), describing contemporary events in the small town of Wittenoom and drawing poetic inspiration from American-Congoan writer Barbara Kingsolver’s poem Hope: An Owner’s Manual. As well as its poetic language, the play is carried along by the strong and nuanced performances of the two lead actors, who are equal in their talent, their memorability, and their deft and graceful display of a huge emotional range compressed into a short space of time. 

Lee enchants as the tough, independent and sentimental singer mother looking for adventure in an outback town where nothing can be taken for granted. Lee is a veteran of stage and screen, with an iconic turn in The Dressmaker. Her confidence is beautiful to behold and her craft lends a believability to an inherently sympathetic character. Goddard, who stole the show as the medieval actress who anticipated method acting in The Amateurs, here lends a youthful vivacity and pathos to a character who at a young age must nurse a sick mother and then respond to her own fateful plot twist. 

The story of mesothelioma in Australia is long and stretches up to the likes of gilded age-building magnate James Hardie down to Australia’s most vulnerable people. One of the most powerful situations from Mary Anne Butler’s moving text is how many poor itinerant Australians feel the need to tolerate injury and illness working in extraction industries so their children can have a better life.

If this is a moving subject for a duologue, a national conversation may be why a country with a social safety net, a good public school system and a healthy economy fails to communicate to its marginalised citizens in regional areas that there are more choices between being simply rich (or rich and sick) and simply poor. It is the cleverness of the text that it implies this question without ever asking it, and movingly dramatises the consequences.

Like all recent Red Stitch productions, Wittenoom has evocative set design, this time by Dann Barber. Its lighting design by Rachel Burke and sound design by Ian Moorhead complement a strong script. Wittenoom, like The Amateurs before it, is powerfully directed by Susie Dee and this time assistant directed and stage managed by Cassie Fumi.

Read: Theatre review: Hubris and Humiliation, STC

A surprise touch of movement towards the end highlights the fragility of Dot and Pearl and the poignancy of their story. You will feel for the characters of Wittenoom like baby birds fallen from the nest, and you will spread the wings of your imagination in this peerless production. 

Wittenoom by Mary Anne Butler
Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne

Director: Susie Dee
Set and Costume Design: Dann Barber
Lighting Design: Rachel Burke
Compostion/Sound Design: Ian Moorhead
Asst. Lighting Design: Spencer Herd
Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Cassandra Fumi
Assistant Stage Manager: Georgina Bright
Cast: Emily Goddard, Caroline Lee

Wittenoom will be performed until 19 February 2023

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin