Written by Dora Abraham, the winner of the 2020 Flinders University Young Playwright's Award, and directed by Zola Allen, Coldhands - Rumpus Theatre's latest original premiere - is a mythic response to climate crisis and the destruction of nature.
One hundred years ago,' the mother character declaims as the lights come up, 'the world was gold'. Relatively speaking, our own world of a century ago, despite the destruction of the Great War, had not yet been largely stripped of its natural wealth by the enormous greed of institutionalised profiteering. With that in mind, the premise of this alternate allegorical reality becomes visible. Climate crisis and destruction of the environment are present in every scene.
The action is set in a kind of alternative-universe, post-apocalyptic future, where the 'Aurum Daemon' steals all the gold in the world. During an annual hunt for sacrifice near a post-mining town, a mother (Bonet Leate) huddles by a fire with her sick girl (Danielle Lim). They encounter a nomadic hunter (Sam Lau) with connections to the land.
Lau and Lim create a mood of devastation and loss, milking the poetic-sounding script for emotion as they creep about in fear through Ellana Murphy's surreal set. Several white, spiky post-apocalyptic branches speak of the land's devastation. Kobe Donaldson's meticulous lighting enhances the piece's dark mood.
Director Allen utilises a traverse staging on the floor of the studio, audience two-deep on either side, with a raised platform at one end for the sacrificial victim. This combines intimate film-style acting possibilities with sightline issues for sections of the audience at the other end of the traverse. At times the acting competes with the soundscape for attention, an issue that might resolve itself as the season unfolds.
I can accept that gold-hungry monsters can be an allegory for the small coterie of billionaires who own a significant percentage of the world's wealth. Viewed in those terms, Antoine Jelk's ethereal soundscape that includes hungry slavering monster sounds bearing down upon the plucky, exposed hunter and child becomes entirely believable. Alex Mader's pulsing musical backdrop lends atmosphere, as we learn that the girl can turn things to gold, making her a target for the nameless, voraciously greedy monsters out there.
The writing in Coldhands is poetic and resonant, but for me it wants further workshopping. Its demonisation of climate crisis and environmental destruction remains general in context. The plot is as ethereal as the soundscape; it begins with a confrontation fraught with an anxiety that remains for the duration of the performance. The Mother disappears for the majority of the play's build to climax. The slim plot structure defaults too readily to repetitive running from ever-present but ill-defined threatening presences.
But there is much to commend this brave new production in terms of committed performance, imaginative staging, composition and sound scaping. While nuggets of theatrical magic are apparent, the real gold in this piece of theatre probably remains as yet unmined.