The most refreshing thing about The Flood, perhaps, is its undeniable ‘Australianness’. Set in rural New South Wales in 1999, the dialogue is colloquial with a roughshod country charm and in that context, there’s something so relieving about the casual profanity and idiomatic exclamations. There’s an authenticity to this play that shapes it into a solid theatrical offering; the dialogue is very genuine and that’s not always easily achievable, especially considering the reflexive habit of cultural cringe that usually edits out regular tics of regular, non-metropolitan Australian speech.
The Flood is unself-conscious and unrelenting in its truth of the less than perfect, of family secrets. The Flood is not the life of Kenneth Slessor’s poem ‘Country Towns’ — it’s the house several kilometres outside that town, largely forgotten and left to itself, a little bit spooky in its remoteness, a perfect breeding ground for something dark and inexcusable. The dogs that lick the sunlight up have been long since sold, or have died (in this family’s case, shot and dropped in a well of dead farm animals), and you’re not certain sunlight really reaches out there, anyway.
Premiering in Melbourne in 2009, The Flood is still relatively new and a welcome addition to Glen Street Theatre’s 2012 season; there’s something very darkly earthy about this production that plays nicely in the Glen Street space. The overall design by Kathryn Sproul and set design The Sisters Hayes is one of the most effective at Glen Street of late — it’s the living area of a dilapidated farmhouse, dark and canopied with glimpses of the bush foliage outside, the floor scattered with old magazines, a sense of haphazard disrepute. You begin to understand this family before you even meet them, and there’s a gothic beauty in the run-down set. Tied in with this is the sound design, by Natasha Anderson, with subtle rain and general outback creaking and settling that comes out clear in the stillness of night. Bronwyn Pringle’s lighting completes this harmony of staging, somehow forlorn by default but unerringly sharp when it needs to be.
Written by Patrick White Playwrights’ Award winner Jackie Smith, The Flood is a psychological family drama. Janet (Shirley Cattunar), the matriarch, has a failing memory and no room for courtesies for her daughters. Dorothy (Maude Davey) is the daughter who stayed in town, got married, got divorced, and now looks after her mother, and then there’s Catherine (Caroline Lee) — the London-based baby of the family, with a half-grating, half-winsome innocence, who hasn’t been back to this house (the farm always scared her) for a long, long time.
There is tension between the sisters, and between the mother and her daughters, and for the first part of this gradually unfolding, non-interval play, we have no idea why. It’s a dramatic build to a shocking revelation, but the hints are a little too heavy-handed, ensuring that when the revelation of the true family secret comes, it’s not quite as shocking as it should be.
This doesn’t quite matter, though, because it’s the eldest child Dorothy that emotively, brokenly reveals all, and in the hands of Maude Davey it’s an affecting and compelling ride.
Cattunar’s doddering Janet is cause for equal parts comedy and tragedy — heartbrokenly and hilariously senile in turns, and Lee’s Catherine comes into her own when her London-cultivated sophistication slips, but it’s Davey’s Dorothy and her transition from roughness to fragility, and the eventual collision of the two, that makes this play entirely, deservedly, Davey’s.
The Flood is about family, and home, and the kinds of ghosts that can take all kinds of forms. It’s a solid piece of theatre, and well-deserving of its current tour.