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Can a murder ever be beautiful?

Thats just one of the questions posed in The Bleeding Tree, a potent piece about domestic violence, retribution and revenge.

A shot rings out in the night, in the first five minutes of the play, and a man is dead, his wife and daughters free from his abuse.

Paula Arundell stars in The Bleeding Tree

Photo: Supplied

What happens next? What does their future hold?

Despite its premise, The Bleeding Tree is a play full of joy and hope, says director Lee Lewis.

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“I remember when we were previewing the play back in 2015 we brought in a group of domestic violence survivors, I wanted to be in conversation with people, I wanted to make sure we werent causing harm.

“I asked these women if they were ok, if it was hard watching the play and they were like, were fine, that was great, the problem had been taken care of at the beginning, [the characters] might not know it yet but everything will get better from that point.”

Lewis said it was a perspective that was awful to hear, that survivors were used to hearing stories where all the violence had to be relived to justify the reaction.

Director Lee Lewis on the set of The Bleeding Tree.

Photo: Steven Siewert

“So often stories are told showing all the violence, so you see their violent retaliation is justified.

The Bleeding Tree doesnt do that. Hes dead five minutes in, what were asking is where do you go from here.”

For Paula Arundell, who plays the mother, The Bleeding Tree has changed her view on domestic violence.

“It wasnt until I did this role that I realised I had particular judgements towards people myself,” she says.

“It can be easier to look away, its so easy to say why doesnt she leave him, you cant help but be changed by where this play takes you.”

She said doing the play has expanded her compassion greatly, the opportunity to talk to survivors helps the play evolve every performance.

“We were sitting around a table workshopping it today and there are one or two lines Ive never liked to say, but today Ive gone ok, that's why shes saying that, it all just dropped into place,” Arundell says.

The Bleeding Tree.

Photo: Supplied

“Its a very challenging role, I have to see the world through the eyes of someone who has lived experiences that I know I would not like to, or could tolerate.”

One in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by someone know to them, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data. On average one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner.

Lewis says part of her job as a theatre maker is to put stories in front of an audience in the hope it might change their view on the issue.

“To be able to put stories in front of an audience which may be filled with educators and legislators and lawyers and psychiatrists, to say this is a chance for you to think about it outside of your work frame but in an emotional place that might help inform the decisions that you make that have real world consequences,” Lewis says.

“My plays have real world consequences through the impact they have on the people who make decisions. Id like to think there's a judge in the audience and the next day they're in the family court and they look at a woman and go I'm just going to believe her and says you did what you had to do to save your kids.”

Lewis is frustrated by the current lack of faith in the justice system. In The Bleeding Tree, the women, and without giving too much away, their community, take justice into their own hands.

“This play is a question about what is an ethical path forward,” Lews says.

“I don't think our justice system reflects the ethics that we believe in. When it comes to violence against women more and more we're realising that our justice system is skewed away from supporting the very people who need our help.”

Lewis says The Bleeding Tree, which was written by playwright Angus Cerini, does make us question how society supports survivors of domestic violence.

“It does accuse us of supporting people too late in situations like this, we wait until it's all over to support them rather than intervening or preventing it in the first place,” she says.

“I was asked once if I thought there should be legislation to say survivors shouldnt be punished if something like this happens and through doing this play Id have to say yes I do think we should look at the law.”

She says however its about changing peoples personal perspectives first.

“Theres a line in the play that Paula says, It was none of their business before so they don't get to judge us now.

“In our most painful scenarios in our society theatre becomes exceptionally useful.

“Looking at real pain is hard, imaging pain, you can begin to think through ways where we can perhaps change it, allowing us to think in ways we might not be able to otherwise.”

The Bleeding Tree will certainly make you do that.

The Bleeding Tree shows at the Canberra Theatre from May 9-12, 2018.

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Karen Hardy

Karen Hardy is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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