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A Conversation @ The Old Mill Theatre

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By Andrew MacNiven

The families of victims of violent crime, particularly in cases of murder, are robbed not only of their loved one’s future, but also of their past. Memories of a life are cruelly warped by the notion of an unalterable timeline that marches always towards an inevitably savage conclusion.

In ‘A Conversation’, Barbara Milsom (Lis Hoffmann) is the grief-stricken mother of Donna, the victim of a brutal murder who is represented on stage only in the form of a framed photograph. Barbara can talk about her daughter as she was, but cannot bear to open old photograph albums, for these images are arranged in a chronological sequence that inexorably leads to a horrific outcome.

It will be obvious then, that this play is not for the squeamish. The subject matter is confronting, but the performers remain assured in their roles, resisting the temptation to veer into melodrama.

The play explores the use of ‘community conferencing’, a process by which family members of both the victim and offender discuss the actions of the perpetrator in an attempt to affect some form of resolution. The play (which first premiered in 2001) was written by David Williamson, one of Australia’s most celebrated playwrights, and screenwriter of the likes of ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Balibo’. Director Brendan Ellis has superbly adapted it for this performance at the Old Mill Theatre.

Jack Manning (Rhett Clarke) has the unenviable task of facilitator and mediator between the frequently belligerent family groups. On one side there is Barbara and her now estranged husband Derek (Gino Cataldo), who remains steadfast in his righteous anger and has sought consolation in academic journal articles and statistics on violent offenders. Facing them from across the conference room are the Williams family; put-upon mother Coral (Gail Lusted), forthright daughter Gail (Natasha Stiven), fidgeting, sensitive brother Mick (Brodie Masini) and reluctant, unsentimental Uncle Bob (Andrew Watson). Also present is mental health professional Lorin (Katrina Murphy), who is troubled by her own guilt over her handling of the affair.

The actual culprit, Scott, is never seen on stage but is a ruinous, malevolent presence. He is heard in a chilling recorded ‘apology’ (voiced by Zachary Drieberg) to Donna’s family. As this killer went into skin-crawling detail in regard to his twisted sexual proclivities, the audience squirmed in their seats or inhaled acutely. Using his voice alone, Drieberg induced a feeling of true revulsion, and left a pall of disquiet over the remainder of the performance.

There is an emotional intensity that comes with witnessing a live performance which makes such content incredibly arresting, more so than on film, where the cinema screen acts as a barrier, or prophylactic, to the empathetic impregnation of the viewer. One cannot help but feel a heightened sense of compassion upon seeing a real human being in apparent pain, so close that you could almost reach out and touch them.

‘A Conversation’ suggests a myriad of factors might contribute to the creation of a violent criminal – genetic sociopathic predisposition, socio-economic deprivation, the absence of strong parental guidance – but it avoids easy compromises or contrived resolutions. The truth is that there are no simple answers to questions, such as ‘why?’, following such a devastating and destructive event as murder.

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