Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
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Alice Birch's ferocious feminist odyssey finally hits London
How to use language to talk about a play that makes a pretty good case for language’s inadequacy? Alice Birch’s exploration of women (and god how inadequate those words seem to describe the play) started life at the RSC in 2014, part of its Midsummer Mischief festival that put the women writers centre stage. It’s about both revolution and a revolution itself, refusing to behave, to stay quiet, to be understood.
A series of scenes, suggesting situations and relationships rather than asserting them, is played out by three women and a man. There’s a marriage proposal. A couple describing sex. A woman asking her boss if she could take all Mondays off. Each vignette reveals the importance and ultimate powerlessness of language, especially when it comes to talking to/about/for/by women.
In fragments, replete with familiar phrases but barely forming into full sentences, the way that women are treated and shaped and talked about in the world today is splattered across the stage with splashes of blood (well, paint), blazes of fire (metaphorically speaking), and shards of adjectives, nouns, verbs (literally).
Erica Whyman’s direction has bright red fire buckets dotted across the stage, ready for when the production ignites. Growing stranger and more elusive, at its climax the play flickers with overlapping speech so that only snatches are audible: 'hymens for sale' shouts one actor, 'does this pass the Bechdel test?' yells another. The four cast members flick stunningly between characters like lightning, with particular power coming from Emmanuella Cole and Emma Fielding. At moments it’s poetry, at others it’s something more.
Revolt, of course, doesn’t just mean revolution. It’s also a reaction to something repulsive, something that isn’t pretty, so far removed from the pretty picture of femininity that centuries have dictated. The play wants both. Without any answers, Birch seems only to offer one option. Tear it down. Start again. Revolt.