I've never really liked stories about the Vietnam War. They have a tendency to either be so factual that they're dead boring, or so esoteric that they're unrelatable to anyone who didn't live through that time. Patricia Cornelius has deftly sidestepped both potential faults in her heartwarming play, The Berry Man.
Centred on Eric, a veteran now in his sixties who has inherited a farm, the play is set in the twenty-first century. His neighbour Marjorie, a cynical woman of the land, mocks his attempts to sow potatoes while standing in a paddock and staring into the distance, and she is as much affected by the betrayal of her ex-husband as Eric is by his experiences in Vietnam. The arrival of Alex, one of Eric's army mates who he hasn't seen in forty years, upsets his isolated existence, especially when he starts on about the war, urging a reluctant Eric to talk about his memories.
These characters, at once pitiable, flawed and humorous, are performed brilliantly by an accomplished cast. Led by an energetic Greg Stone in the role of Eric, they invite the audience into their world from the moment the lights go up. Tom Consodine's performance of the annoying but affable Alex appears effortless from the auditorium, which assures me it isn't; and Maude Davey is equally familiar and accomplished in the role of the forthright Marjorie.
Indeed, it is critical to the success of this play that Marjorie, equal in age to the war that sits at the heart of the story, is as grounded and as raw as she is played by Davey. Her story, ostensibly unrelated to that of the veterans, grounds the work in the here and now. It is not so much a story about a war or its context or their effects on soldiers, but a story about healing, and its setting on an unproductive farm symbolically positions it in a place of unrealised potential.
Wodonga’s Butter Factory Theatre is thus perfect, not only as a venue, but as a context for the premiere production of The Berry Man. Here, in the middle of a drought-ravaged land, it is easy to relate to Darryl Cordell’s stark and unyielding design. The set performs almost as admirably as the stolid performers, and the effect is breathtaking.
Although The Berry Man might be centred on the Vietnam War, its theme really runs much deeper than that. Our capacity to engage with life, to face what it throws at us, and to find our way is always affected by the perspective from which we approach it.
Hothouse Theatre have approached this production with great warmth and sensitivity, and the result is a brilliant story and a heartwarming night out.
HotHouse Theatre presents
The Berry Man
by Patricia Cornelius
Director Susie Dee
Venue: Butter Factory Theatre Wodonga
Dates: August 5 – 14, 2010
Bookings: hothousetheatre.com.au | 02 6021 7433