REVOLT, SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN.
by Alice Birch
16 June -9 July 2017
… electric cast generate a riotous brilliance that will leave you buzzing'
Cameron Woodhead, The Age ★★★★
REVOLT, SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN
by Alice Birch
Director: Janice Muller
Set & Costume Design: Marg Howell
Lighting Design: Emma Valente
Sound Design & Composition: James Brown
Stage Manager: Tia Clarke
Assistant Stage Manager: Hannah Bullen
Performed by Elizabeth Esguerra, Ming Zhu-Hii, Belinda McClory, Gareth Reeves and Sophie Ross
Nominated for Best Ensemble,
Green Room Awards 2018
★★★★ Electric cast generate a riotous brilliance that will leave you buzzing The Age
Photography: Pia Johnson
Revolt. She said. Revolt Again review: Electric cast generate a riotous brilliance that will leave you buzzing
By Cameron Woodhead
22 June 2017
Alice Birch's lobs a theatrical grenade into the struggle of being a woman in the 21st century, exploding treacherous language, life-denying myths and stereotypes, in a play as energised by hilarity as ferocity, by anger as anguish.
In Melbourne, feminist theatre has serious cultural voltage behind it –artists from Patricia Cornelius to The Rabble produce some of our most inspired, vibrant performance –so it's unsurprising Janice Muller's production of this London-based playwright achieves an electric brilliance that will leave you buzzing. It begins with a series of subversive scenarios hacking away, initially with comic force, at entrenched conceptions of gender through sex, marriage and work.
A woman (Sophie Ross) upends a man's (Gareth Reeves) verbal foreplay, leaving him nonplussed when she matches his sexuality for objectification, aggressiveness …and penetration. Another (Ming-Zhu Hii) strips bare romantic trappings from a marriage proposal, defiantly employing traditionally masculine manipulations. A third scene sees a frenzied corporate lesbian boss (Belinda McClory ) offer every kind of fringe benefit to placate an employee (Elizabeth Esguerra ) who just wants Mondays off. The dialogue writhes with black humour, disturbing undercurrents of racial politics and depressingly familiar assumptions attached to female desire.
A surreal encounter unleashes the show from the confines of its elevated, boxy set. Two supermarket employees berate and fat-shame a woman who has destroyed watermelons and lies in the dairy aisle, genitals exposed. Did she just slip over? Who knows? But her response to their abuse –a monologue that willingly submits to every violation and judgment the world can throw at her body –delivers from on high a horrifying hymn to false empowerment.
In a clear-felled wood littered with stumps (hold on to your castration anxiety, fellas) three generations of women clash over motherhood, domestic violence and a genealogy of brutalisation. It's portrayed ingeniously as a bleak take on Red Riding Hood, with grandmother and wolf combined, and McClory as the frantic excluded middle –Red's mother –from the fairy tale.
All hell breaks loose from there. Birch's stage direction that "this play should not be well-behaved" has been taken to extremes. A chaos of weird sights, blurted lines, fragments and memes conquers the stage, and in one sense, it might be too much like the black noise our attention-poor, digitally-engorged age vomits into our brains every day to be successful art.
Yet there may be a different way of reading this overstimulated, confronting morass. Perhaps it is really a silence, the kind Pinter identified when "a torrent of language is being employed".
What this funny, furious and intensely alive piece of theatre does expose is a culture and a language in need of wholescale reinvention, not simply in terms of gender, but on the scale of social possibility generally.be true.
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again review – the ferocious, urgent roar of young and angry feminism
This audacious production explores the idea of theatre – and gender – as a construct, and is a testament to the strength of feminist performance in Australia
I've lost count of how many women I’ve seen raped on stage. How many actors I’ve seen slapped, spit on, thrown to the ground. How many women I’ve seen killed. There’s too many to keep concrete thought; too many to remember each actor, each play.
We forget, too often, the work that is demanded of the actor to make herself available for weeks in the rehearsal room, and then every night on stage, to fulfil someone else’s vision – usually a man’s, because directors are usually men – of a woman destroyed.
Alice Birch doesn’t want this work to be unseen. Her angry and frantic play Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, is an experimental work focused on using a feminist voice which is loud; a feminist voice which seeks to change the world not through small increments but through a revolution: through the destruction of language; through the destruction of society.
Over four distinct sections, each playing with form and language in a new way, always reacting harshly against the world, Revolt fractures the lines between performers and characters. In the second section of the play, directed here by Janice Muller in its Australian premiere, we watch an eerie and insidiously violent tableau under a sickly green light. Three women stare out to the audience – some sort of dysfunctional family – three generations of women struggling against the world.
And then the front begins to crack: Belinda McClory flounders over her lines.
She takes a step back, breathes, apologises for the work of it, questioning herself. The other two women on stage don’t react: this breakage is of Birch’s creation.
In this moment McClory is completely clothed, there are no men on stage, no bodies are touching – or even looking at each other – but her words are describing the violence of men against women, and in this splintering between McClory and her character Dinah I think of all of the women I’ve seen abused on stage, and see all of the stress and difficulty of this work that we too often don’t remark on.
Birch and Muller build smaller breaks between character and actor throughout the work: a snicker here, a breath there, and the cast are endearing in these divisions. Revolt is given an audacious and ambitious production in Malthouse’s biggest theatre space, and these ideas of theatre – and gender – as a construct are always present.
First performed in 2014, Revolt is the roar of young and angry feminism of women in their 20s grappling with the realities of the world for the first time; the ferocity that comes when you realise that, unlike what you’ve been taught, men and women aren’t yet equal in society, and the world is made of more barriers than you’d ever realised. It is a constantly inverting work: calls of strength towards a revolution warp into methods of destruction against the women they are supposed to help.
Revolt is sometimes confused, Birch’s yell not always coming through clear. Muller’s direction looks to overwhelm, but occasional lapses in the energy allow us too much time to step back – and re-entry into the work can be difficult. But if it isn’t always completely realised, there is an urgency to the work, and it poses a deeply fascinating challenge to its audience, both in the watching and in the intellect it asks for afterwards.
If the production forces me to think on the prevalence of violence against women in Australian theatre, so too does it remind me of the strength of feminist performance and critique in this country. Emma Valente’s lighting is uncompromisingly vivid, evoking the colour palates she often plays with with artists like Adena Jacobs and her own company, The Rabble. Marg Horwell’s design sees the opening scenes in a soft pink curtained box, playing off the design of The Second Woman; an oversized peach dress filled with balls creates a misshapen lump that views women’s bodies in much the same way as Monster Body; she even crafts in a nod to the most recent Mia Freedman controversy. If occasionally Birch’s Britishness sits too heavily in the text, the actors and design are always there to remind us this is an Australian story, too. And it’s a story of work that is yet to be done.
In the play’s final moments, a young black woman (Elizabeth Esguerra), sadly, tiredly – but not without hope – stares into the audience. “Who knew that life could be so awful,” she says, more statement than question. A smatter of laughs comes from the audience, but only from men. The women know it to be true.
Malthouse Theatre’s ‘Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.’ is an exciting but nihilistic condemnation of how contemporary feminism has been derailed
It’s 2017, and we’re smack bang in the middle of the third wave – or is it the fourth wave? – of feminism. And all these decades of activism have led … where?
Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., a play in the tradition of both Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane, presents this question as a confronting work of ill-behaved theatre. It’s given a remarkable production – sharp, intelligent and fierce – by director Janice Muller at Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne (until 9 July). And yet I walked out feeling equal parts excited and disappointed.
It’s easy to see why Birch, a young Royal Court playwright whose work has gone on to productions in the US, has attracted notice. She’s a writer with a powerful sense of poetic theatricality, and she employs a truthful, satirical edge that can open out bleakly into violence.
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is a comprehensive condemnation of the derailments of contemporary feminism, in particular the liberal mantras of “choice” and “empowerment” that substitute for any real sense of liberation. It’s a scream of protest against the violence done to women, through language, erasure and self-annihilation.
Birch isn’t afraid of crudity. Each scene is over-mounted by a slogan – REVOLUTIONISE THE LANGUAGE (INVERT IT), REVOLUTIONISE THE WORLD (DON’T REPRODUCE) – that introduces (often with acid irony) its argument. The scenes often subvert or call into question the slogans, which themselves hark back uneasily to an earlier, more revolutionary feminism.
Act One opens with a domestic scene of verbal foreplay that quickly turns hilarious when a glamorously gowned woman (Sophie Ross) turns the language of male desire against her partner (Gareth Reeves). When she inverts his language, turning him into a sexual object, using the same metaphors of penetration and violent possession that are common in masculine tropes of desire, he is taken aback.
Other similar encounters follow: a marriage proposal from Reeves is rejected because his intended wife (Ming-Zhu Hii) likens the institution to being a suicide bomber; an employee (Elizabeth Esguerra) asks for Mondays off to sleep, while her boss (Belinda McClory) simply can’t understand existence outside the neoliberal modes of constant production; and, finally, two supermarket employees interrogate a customer who has been found half-naked in aisle seven, doing something unmentionable with watermelons.
The hapless watermelon woman (Ross) climbs out of the top of the box set and gives a speech about the constant invasion of the female body. She describes various ways of women asserting their autonomy – cosmetics, barbed wire – but “no fortification [is] strong enough”. The only defence is collusion: “Lie down and become available. Constantly. Want to be entered. Constantly. It cannot be an Invasion, if you want it.”
At this point the text spins into Act Two, and begins to spiral into chaos. At its centre is a family drama between a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter; it reveals a sequence of brutal domestic violence interiorised by the women and passed down. The repression enacted here struck me as a particularly British neuroticism, which doesn’t quite transfer to an Australian context, although it is recognisable. Act Three is chaos, an enactment of linguistic and psychic breakdown. Act Four presents itself as conclusion, the announcement of both revolution and failure.
This text presents unique challenges that have all been answered in Muller’s production. Designer Marg Horwell has the slogans in huge Barbara Kruger-esque signs that sit high above the moveable box set in the middle of the huge Merlyn Theatre space. It’s brilliantly lit by Emma Valente, with an appropriately jagged sound design by James Brown.
The cast is remarkable, attacking the text with an accuracy that brings a sharpness and truth to its extremes. Belinda McClory’s performance alone is worth the price of the ticket: she is a dazzling presence, all edges and wounds.
As I walked out, I didn’t quite know what to think. Up to the end of the first act I felt a taut sense of expectation, which was ultimately deflated by what felt like simplistic conclusions: a despair that felt too easy, a vision of economic and social revolution and “the eradication of all men”. The language here becomes less accurate, relying on an exhausted emotional drive that manifests as empty repetition: “at some point I opened my eyes at some point I looked up and it felt like wastelands and wastelands and wastelands and wastelands …”
It’s hard not think of Churchill’s work while watching Revolt. Birch, while employing some of Churchill’s techniques of elision and linguistic associativity, never quite manages Churchill’s subtlety and political edge or, it must be said, humanity. Her mostly nameless characters are deliberately sketched as caricatures, but caricatures are what they remain. Birch presents a picture of being under the tyranny of neoliberal patriarchy that is entirely bleak, even nihilistic. It’s a protest against imprisonment that doesn’t seem able to envision anything beyond the prison walls.
It made me think of the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who was executed by the German Freikorps in 1919. “Being human means joyfully throwing your whole life ‘on the scales of destiny’ when need be,” she wrote, “but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud.” There is none of that rejoicing in this play.
There’s an erasure here, not only of history but also of experience and self, which can’t reach beyond itself. “Who knew that life could be so awful?” says one character in the final moment. And the inevitable thought is, lots of people know how awful life can be, all the time, every day. This exposure of a certain blindness may, of course, be the point of the play, but the lack of any alternative vision struck me as naive, the product of privilege that has been able to ignore injustice.
All the same, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. It’s great to see a text like this given all the resources of a main-stage production, and rendered so brilliantly. It makes me hope that perhaps we can see some similar Australian texts given the same treatment.