The Blackening

BATS Theatre, Wellington

10/06/2009 - 27/06/2009

Production Details

World Premiere of the new play by 2008 Bruce Mason Playwrighting Award Winner  

A multi-award winning team of Wellington’s finest theatre professionals presents a new work by New Zealand’s most promising young playwright PAUL ROTHWELL (Golden Boys, Deliver Us, Christmas Indoors) THE BLACKENING, opening at BATS Theatre, Wellington in June.

Jed Brophy features as Mal, who left home as a wayward teen in search of a grander life. Now, years later he returns as a broken man with many secrets to hide.

The two brothers he abandoned on their dilapidated orchard welcome him cautiously. Brother Dan is resentful and suspicious – has bad boy Mal really mended his ways? Younger brother Broody struggles to remember his other brother at all, but could Mal be his key to freedom from the dying orchard?

Time seems to have stood still in the home of his youth and Mal intends to start over and do things right.

But as he discovers, the old orchard holds secrets of it’s own.

THE BLACKENING features set/costume design by Tony De Goldi, lighting design by multi Chapman Tripp Award winning designer Jennifer Lal; and a stunning 5.1 surround-soundscape created for the show by Stephen Gallagher (The Lovely Bones).

THE BLACKENING is directed + produced by Paul McLaughlin (HOTEL).

Jed Brophy (
Skin Tight, Lord of The Rings
Jonny Moffat
(The Spot, Quills) 
Jack Shadbolt (The Intricate Art of Actually Caring

Tony De Goldi [Set/Costume] (
Te Karakia)
Jennifer Lal [Lighting]
Stephen Gallagher [Sound] (Albert Speer, The Lovely Bones)
Paul McLaughlin [Direction](ATC Artistic Director Intern 2008,

The Blackening
Bats, 10 – 27 June, 7pm
Book for the show:
Ph  04 802 4175 

Mal - Jed Brophy
Broody - Jack Shadbolt
Dan - Jonny Moffatt

Lighting Designer - Jennifer Lal
Sound Designer - Stephen Gallagher
Set/Costume Designer - Tony De Goldi

Light + Sound Operator - Glenn Ashworth
Stage Manager - Gabrielle Rhodes
Poster Photography - Sharyn Jones
Graphic Designer - Yasmine El Orfi  Neogine  
Publicity - Paul McLaughlin 

1hr 5 mins, no interval

Deeply disturbing

Review by Lynn Freeman 17th Jun 2009

The Blackening is one of the most polished productions you’ll see this year, with its abundance of Chapman Tripp Award winning designers and Bruce Mason Playwright Award winning writer Paul Rothwell.  It is also one of the most deeply disturbing.

Rothwell dwells in the dark side in his writing, and this script is pitch black.

A petty criminal returns home after running off ten years earlier.  Home is a failed orchard with just one bad apple remaining on the tree – but does that represent the failed prodigal son Mal (Jed Brophy), the brain damaged youngest brother Broody or the middle son who’s struggling to care for the youngster?  Or the masochistic father who terrorizes the children still? Or Mal’s old girlfriend?

There’s an element of Psycho in The Blackening. To say more than that would be criminal, but it’s scary, taking us into unsavoury psychological territory.

It is a pleasure to see Jed Brophy (Mal) back on stage and in a role which shows what an intense and rewarding performer he is.  Jack Shadbolt’s Broody captures the naive 10 year old spirit trapped in a big and strong 19 year old frame, while Jonny Moffatt is utterly convincing as the middle brother who’s edgy and angry in equal measure.

Paul McLaughlin’s sure handed direction allows for lots of silence and stillness, adding to the tension in the air.

The aforementioned designers show why they’re multi award winners – tony De Goldi’s set takes us into a place we’d rather not be, with its aged caravan, washing line and fallen apples.  Jennifer Lal’s lighting is sublimely subtle and the sound by Stephen Gallagher makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention.

This is quality work. You won’t leave the theatre with a smile on your face and a skip in your step, in fact you might just want to sleep with the light on for a while …
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Startling, puzzling, powerful

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 13th Jun 2009

From moment you pick up the stylishly presented programme (Yasmine El Orfi), hear the soft sounds of a late summer’s evening (Stephen Gallagher) and see the dark shadows of branches of a bare apple tree (Jennifer Lal) fall across a leaf strewn back yard of a remote orchard (Tony de Goldi) you know that The Blackening, the latest play by the prolific Paul Rothwell, has been given a prestige production.

In the hazy evening light are two brothers, one ominously sharpening an axe. The tension is broken and then instantly increased by the arrival of a third man, who it turns out is Mal (Jed Brophy), the eldest brother, returning home to their apple orchard after 10 years absence. Like the orchard, Mal is infected with his own form of fire blight: disillusionment, a long lost love, and a yearning for his youth.

In his absence his youngest brother, Broody (Jack Shadbolt), has become mentally impaired as a result of a fall from a tree, while his other brother, the morose Dan, (Jonny Moffatt) looks after Broody and plans to cut down the orchard.

But lurking in the background is a tyrannical grandfather, a dog called Susannah, and a woman called May. It’s all very much like a New Zealand version of Sam Shepard, whose early plays critic John Lahr described as "one-act epiphanies of paranoia told in startling stage images that began in naturalism and ended in allegory."

The fruit of the tree of life is poisoned, there’s a snake entwined in the branches, and the ghosts of the past live on in the shadows of the brothers’ minds. It’s all very powerful, intensely theatrical, melodramatic, and occasionally poetic even if it doesn’t make unequivocal sense.

Despite a bit too much staring into the middle distance, it’s acted to the hilt by Shadbolt, Moffatt and Brophy under Paul McLaughlin’s tense direction which keeps the audience held even if at the end some, like the puzzled man behind me, said "What on earth was that about?"
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Compelling and challenging theatre of unease

Review by John Smythe 11th Jun 2009

The Blackening is named for what fire blight, a contagious disease, does to an apple tree. Or a whole orchard, in this case. A family of brothers is similarly afflicted. The questions are: What caused it? Is there a cure? Can one escape?

Possibilities are hinted at but no neat answers are offered. The play derives its considerable dramatic tension from a slow reveal of what happened a decade or so ago, and has happened over the years since, as the ordered and simple life of Dan and Broody, the two bothers who remained on the family property, is challenged by the unexpected return of Mal, the one who left.

“Too small for me, here,” he explains. “Once you’ve made trouble at every farm in the valley, there’s not a lot else to do. Had to get out, make somebody of myself.”

Is Mal so-named because he was the bad apple? First it seems not, then it seems so, then it seems the contagion reaches back further than that. I can’t be too explicit here. Suffice to say that boys brought up motherless (their father never gets mentioned) with an ineffectual ‘Nan’ and a ‘Pop’ who whipped their legs raw are going to be blighted with problems. Ingrained.

Falling is a motif too. Mal fell for local beauty May, a.k.a. Blossom, all those years ago, and treated her badly. Now it seems she has fallen for Dan, or vice versa. They’re married, anyway. Or is it we who fall for the stories the brothers tell, only to discover the reality is … something else again?

And Broody fell out of an apple tree, onto his head, on his tenth birthday. He’s 18 now but has a mental age of about six: innocent, inquisitive, keen to go fast in a go-cart. Jack Shadbolt, towering over his co-actors, inhabits this role with such honest ease you have to have seen him in other roles to realise what an excellent actor he is.

Jonny Moffatt is quietly intense as the surly brother Dan who has, it seems, cared for Broody and re-established order in their world. Except for the blight. Wholesale slaughter is his answer and he has sharpened his axe, ready to do it …

Mal, whose first action is to breathe in the fresh air and bask in the calming ambience of birdsong and a flowing creek (a subtle but rich soundscape by Stephen Gallagher), experiences the most complex range of emotions and Jed Brophy is true to every bit of all of them.

Clad in a white shirt and city suit, his claim to be “loaded” and “the manager” also turns out to be less than all of the truth. He is on a quest to reconnect with his old self. Or is it confrontation, punishment, forgiveness, redemption and/or catharsis he craves? Mal has got a lot invested in this return and we, in turn, are compelled to invest a lot in him …

Tony De Goldi’s splendid outdoor set – dead leaves merging into a patterned carpet, an apparently dead tree with one apple unplucked, the back-end of a caravan, washing on the line including frocks, evidence of an abandoned childhood – is superbly lit by Jennifer Lal to evoke times of day, darkness and lightness, in subtly different locations.  

Director Paul McLaughlin gives space to the story and the ever-changing relationships, trusting the unspoken to claim its crucial place in capturing our attention; ensuring the spoken text is modulated to maximum effect. The physical space is well used too, although I expected the caravan to justify its centre-stage placing at some point and it doesn’t.

The action plays out with a sureness that compels our confidence in the emotional and intellectual investments we make. En route, we need to decode the conventions being employed. The old dog, Sussanah, is fur in a basket but apparently alive. [Spoiler warning] When May and Pop appear but are unattributed in the programme, is this sleight-of-body doubling or something else? Sussanah turns out to be a fox fur. Are May and Pop faux people, then? If so, what’s happened to the real them? [Spoiler ends]

There are clearly secrets to be revealed (the publicity promises as much). Our anticipation is masterfully built by writer, director and actors working in unison. We are constantly provoked to revise our perceptions of ‘the reality’, and our judgements about the men themselves and the choices they’ve made …

Most of us, I suspect, want that one fresh apple to be the key to a new beginning. But this is Rothwell, whose world view appears to be irredeemably dark. Our desire for Dan to come clean and lighten up, and for Mal to achieve his redemption in the wake of a climactic thrashing – the craved catharsis? – will not be pandered to here.

Only the ‘innocent’ Broody is offered some possibility of escape, except he is ill-equipped to survive on his own. He does have a knife, however. And that final image is certainly one to conjure with: will he head off at a tangent to a whole new way of being or be drawn into the same cycle elsewhere? 

Likewise our natural desire to finally solve the puzzles that have so intrigued us is given short shrift, and I’m less inclined to be happy with that. I want (as others said afterwards) to at least be clear about who has done what, even if I’m left to wrestle with the why and how. Even so, the way I feel at the end somewhat reflects the frustration I feel when yet another report of unspeakable family abuse surfaces in the daily news …

Once more Paul Rothwell, served by a very fine creative team, has shown us aspects of ourselves we cannot deny. Homegrown ‘theatre of unease’ is alive and ready to challenge you at Bats.

PS: Bats’ new policy of allowing more shows to have ‘sole occupancy’ of the space pays off handsomely here, design-wise and with a play that’s allowed to run more than 50 minutes. Bravo.

For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.



John Smythe June 26th, 2009

Further reviews, opinions and discussion on The Blackening may be found on Kate Blackhurst’s blog and in Salient.  Spoiler warnings apply – but for those who have seen it, I recommend both.  

There seems to be little doubt it is compelling (except for one very narrow-minded detractor) and provocative (including to said detractor).  For me the key question is this: are elements of mystery and intrigue worked in a way that validly leaves some questions open or does the play and/or production willfully subvert itself with unsolvable obscurity?

John Smythe June 25th, 2009

Having just seen The Blackening again I want to clarify a couple of things for the historical record – so count this as a spoiler warning if you are booked for either of the final two nights (it’s been doing cracker business by the way – I was wait-listed to get a seat tonight). 

First, there are clear harbingers of hope: the go-cart project suggests stuff that was broken and useless can be put together to make something new and functioning; the blighted orchard turns out to have one whole tree that produces good apples – presumably in ‘the secret place’ only Broody knows about until Mal discovers it.

It is also quite clear to me now that Nan, Pop and May are dead and the role-playing is, in the wake of generations of violent abuse, Dan’s coping mechanism; his means of retaining the familiar and maintaining the status quo while (if he is to be believed) doing no actual physical harm to Broody-as-May while administering thrashings when it's Dan-as-Pop. Mal’s solution was to escape, but not before he had done damage too.

In scene 12 of 13, the script reads ‘
Simple wooden crosses bear the names “May” “Pop” “Nan” and a newer one “Susannah”.’ These are not included in this production. Instead the realisation the dog has been dead throughout is the clue that the same goes for the others. We share with Mal the gradual realisation of what has happened over the ten years he has been absent. And – despite the whipping he takes on behalf of Broody – because May killed herself after he left her, knowing she was pregnant, there is neither forgiveness nor redemption for him.  He chokes to death on the ‘apples of hope’.

So while The Blackening offers a very bleak view of the human condition, and we might not like its ‘message’, it is a dramatically valid challenge to our moral sensibilities. Don't you think?

Paul McLaughlin June 11th, 2009

Actual running time of THE BLACKENING is 65 minutes. 
[Thanks - info added to production page - ed]

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