Alice Birch’s feminist play about language and power storms the Malthouse
UK playwright Alice Birch wrote her play Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. back in 2013, but given recent events around the world like the Women’s March on Washington and the Daily Mail’s sexist headline about Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, the work could easily have been conceived in the white heat of now. The fraught relationship society has with women’s bodies and the language used to describe them only seems to deepen with each passing year.
Language is Birch’s central interest here – its tendency to codify and constrict women’s experience in ways we don’t even notice – and she manages to elicit some hilarious exchanges by inverting our expectations. It opens on a man (Gareth Reeves) and a woman (Sophie Ross) about to have sex. He employs all the established clichés available to him, with talk of spreading and screwing and pounding, but isn’t so aroused when the roles are reversed. “Where are you putting your fingers?” he asks at one point. It’s a brilliant exposure of the invasiveness and violence lurking just below the surface of our sexual discourses.
Several scenes of dialogue between two actors follow; one deals with a marriage proposal, another with a workplace negotiation, and a third with a woman who has stripped off in a supermarket aisle. These are all funny, if uneven, but it is during the final one that Birch begins to break down her structure, and the play flies off into dangerous and thrilling territory. Ross, playing the woman from aisle seven, steps out of the scene and climbs on top of the modular set to deliver a monologue of searing intensity. Sick of having to defend herself from attacks both verbal and physical, she has decided to open her body to the world, because “you can’t be violated if you let them in”. It’s superbly rendered and shockingly powerful.
Belinda McClory has a monologue in the middle of the play that is equally effective as a demonstration of the wrenching impact good agitprop theatre can have on the audience’s consciousness. She is playing the mother of a deeply traumatised daughter (Elisabeth Esquerra), pleading with her own mother (Hii) to acknowledge their familial bond. Covering issues as troubling as domestic violence, self harm and maternal ambivalence, the monologue manages to capture the massive weight of intergenerational abuse without in any way slipping into didacticism or simplification.
While the play up to this point has flirted with structural experimentation – the unnamed characters who seem to exist as foils for an idea, the deliberate blurring of the lines between actor and part, the odd narrative details that recur throughout – it is here that the audience sees evidence of Birch’s statement that her play is “not well behaved”. All of a sudden the design jolts into action, with Marg Horwell’s set retreating and advancing at whim, and Emma Valente’s brilliant lighting shifting into overdrive. The text descends into a series of short, aggressively delivered non-sequiturs; actors dart around the space and yell barely decipherable phrases; they madly adopt and discard silly costumes, and occasionally throw out some barbed criticisms of the status quo.
It’s a concept that would have worked for about five minutes, but it goes on for an entire act, and starts to feel interminable. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with deconstructing forms, but there needs to be a viable dramatic alternative to replace them, and Birch simply doesn’t provide one. The production’s random reference to Mia Freedman’s recent bumbling publication of her interview with noted US feminist Roxane Gay merely underlines the arbitrary nature of the play’s political targets; there’s an unmistakable sense of throwing concepts at the wall and hoping some will stick.
Director Janice Muller steers the actors beautifully – all five deliver superb performances, given how little characterisation Birch provides – in a production that makes the most of the playwright’s intentions, augmenting and enriching what on the page has a tendency towards the schematic and cerebral. The script maintains that a set is not necessary, but Muller has ignored this, with an aesthetic that suggests a seedy hotel, a bush clearing and a neon nightmare. It’s an occasionally electric night in the theatre, often very funny, and undeniably resonant. It’s just a pity that Birch’s formal experimentation obscures the drama, and with it the chance for genuine revolt.