A disturbing examination of emotional and physical abuse of children from the pen of Nick Parsons, best known for writing and directing the Village Roadshow feature film “Dead Heart,” starring Bryan Brown, “Hollow Ground” stands out as an unusually confrontational treatment of the uncomfortably timely topic of pedophilia, given high-profile scandals at the highest political levels in Oz and Europe.
At play’s center is 12-year-old Shelley (Rebecca Smart), whose relatives entrust her to the care of Father Chris (Bruce Roberts) after her mother dies and just before the release from prison of her alcoholic pedophile stepfather Jim (Danny Adcock). Adcock gives a compelling perf as the reviled character, while Smart’s portrayal of an abused youngster who has never been able to get to know herself is a knockout.
Piece’s toughness lies in its unnerving even-handedness, capturing both the fragility and emotional upset of the abused child as well as portraying her sexuality and examining how she can use stories of abuse for her own ends. Also, audience finds itself — if only for brief spells — sympathizing with the perpetrators of wrongs, while the priest turns out be one of the most morally compromised characters, struggling with his own desires and dark secrets from long-ago that eventually undo him.
A striking set includes rows of seats at its edge on which some characters sit silently watching the action onstage in an effective device suggesting that people often see more than they are willing to admit of such abuses. Not only the Catholic church is shown to be on hollow ground in such cases. Supposedly respectable middle-class parents Henry (John Jarratt) and Judy (Karen Vickery) not only abandon Shelley to her unhappy fate with Chris, but also use their daughter Rosie (Anna Lise Phillips) in a game of emotional blackmail as their marriage crumbles.
But piece is almost too effective in probing the dark side of family life and society’s inadequate responses. By not giving any characters — including the protagonist — substantial redeeming features, audience is left with too little to empathize with and play sometimes veers dangerously close to being an unfocused, unpleasant experience populated by overwhelmingly flawed and selfish characters.