Wittenoom (Red Stitch Theatre) – theatre review

Wittenoom, the former town and declared contaminated site in the Pilbara region of Western Australia was, in short, a death trap. During the 1950s and early ‘60s, it was Australia’s only supplier of deadly blue asbestos. The mine was shut down in 1966. Wittenoom, the play – a work of fiction – uncovers just how toxic an environment the place was … in chilling detail. The world premiere production is a superb piece of work, brilliantly conceived and executed.

Photos by Jodie Hutchinson

Dot (Caroline Lee) works in Wittenoom and loves the constant flow of new men into the region. Sexually charged, she takes full advantage of the situation in the full knowledge of her 15-year-old daughter Pearl (Emily Goddard). The last thing Dot wants is a permanent male fixture in her life, but – as she says – a woman has needs. While the money is good, the risks of being a part of the community are immense and increasingly more and more people are becoming sick. The company abrogates its responsibilities to its workers and the workers don’t stand up to the company. And then Dot’s world comes tumbling down.

Mary Anne Butler has written a deeply moving and engaging play, with authenticity at its core. The scene is set from the opening poetic monologue. At times there is a cheeky lilt or a lighthearted story about the good times, but – more often than not – that is interwoven with the deep distress of the situation at Wittenoom. There is detail about the symptoms of illness, of diagnosis and impending doom … of men coated in poisonous dust, of tiny, floating fibres entering the lungs. By then, time is measured in months, not years … and dreams shattered.

The narrative is heartbreaking, the performances superb. Dot is fiercely independent and brings up Pearl to be the same way. At the start, Dot embraces life and the possibilities of a financially secure future, but soon enough the nightmare eviscerates that. Ambition and stoicism are weighed down by the harsh reality of what confronts her and her daughter. Caroline Lee and Emily Goddard are deftly able to insert nuance into their characterisations, to switch temperament in the blink of an eye. They lay it all on the line. It is raw. It is confronting. It is oh so compelling.

Ian Moorhead’s sound design heightens the tension, while Rachel Burke’s lighting design adds a layer to the stifling heat of the Pilbara. The set is a ripper. It is highly evocative. Dann Barber gives us a large, dilapidated, dusty, wooden “welcome to Wittenoom” sign, with many of the letters missing. Beneath it lies wattle that has fallen from trees. Visceral theatre at its finest, this world premiere production is magnificently directed by Susie Dee. Brace yourself, because the horrors of Wittenoom stay with you long after you exit Red Stitch. Sixty-five minutes without interval, it is playing until 19th February, 2023.

Alex First

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