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I love Sydney theatre. This week I realised it really doesn’t love me back.

By Cassie Tongue
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I love the theatre. I’ve loved it for a very long time and I’ve been writing about it for several years as a critic. I love it anew every time I sit down and wait for that hush before the play starts – the promise of something real, something revelatory, that incredible power of the form to tell us something new we’ve always felt, but never quite could put our finger on. Or those times it blows us apart, smashes us open, and remakes us into better humans. I love that.

I just wish the theatre loved me back.

Last night I attended the opening night of Speed-the-Plow, Andrew Upton’s production of David Mamet's 1988 play, in the Roslyn Packer theatre. Starring Rose Byrne (in the Madonna/Lindsay Lohan role), it was a hard piece of marketing and casting to resist.

Rose Byrne and Damon Herriman in Sydney Theatre Company's Speed-the-Plow
Photograph: Lisa Tomasetti

It also felt like a homecoming of sorts, for me. I saw Byrne in a Sydney Theatre Company show 15 years ago – Benedict Andrews’ Three Sisters – and the production ignited in me a love for Chekhov and theatre that well overtook the fondness for the form that had come before. I had come to Sydney on a bus from Dubbo, where I was an overachieving accelerated English student and an eager Drama student, in Year 11 but about to sit the HSC for English, bursting with new ideas from new books.  I was desperate for stories and experience beyond my quiet life. I was desperate for words and poetry.

Ever since that excursion I’ve had a sentimental kind of love for the theatres on Hickson Road and the capacity of Sydney Theatre Company to elevate and enrich a life. Things like that trip, coupled with a heart-to-heart with a playwright friend that I'll never not be grateful for, led me here, to writing about shows and infusing the artistic with the socio-political, writing like it's a mission, writing like it's a passion project. Because it is. Because I love criticism and context and the conversation, but most of all, because I love the theatre.

"It’s hard to come to terms with the idea that the thing you love so much ... frequently has no interest in you at all."

It’s hard to come to terms with the idea that the thing you love so much – the thing that you do with all your time, that you prioritise as equally as your full-time professional job, that you prioritise over romantic relationships or hobbies or god, even reading – frequently has no interest in you at all.

This year, it’s like the theatre has wanted to remind me that the great dramatic canon was set by a bunch of men who don’t give a shit about me; that lauded, much-revived plays that claim to ‘comment on’ shitty behaviour just perpetuate the idea that this behaviour is acceptable – because it’s on stage, and celebrities are participating; and that the conservative, deeply white world that theatre is interested in portraying sees absolutely no need to talk to me or engage with me.

Speed-the-Plow is inexplicably popular. It’s witty (ish) (it thinks it’s really funny at least) and tightly-plotted, but it’s neither dark enough to be polished satire or daring enough to be an expose. It’s a dated dick-measuring contest between two men – Bob (Damon Herriman), a producer that’s something of a current hotshot, and Charlie (Lachy Hulme), a producer who’s ready to make the real money, now, please – that gets interrupted by Byrne’s Karen.

Karen, Karen, Karen.

Karen is a temporary replacement for Bob’s assistant, Cathy, and she’s this ungainly, guileless, beautiful ingenue. She doesn’t know where to get coffee for the men and when she comes in, the spoons fall off her tray. She doesn’t quite know how to pick them up without looking like an idiot. And when she walks in that room and the men get a good look at her, well. You can imagine.

They don’t grab her by the pussy but the men puff their chests out, call each other whores, and talk as quickly and crudely as possible about sex and power and deals and money. It’s easy intimidation just because they can. Because they’re men and they think she might be weak, and if they’re cocky and gross and powerful, she might fuck Bob for a taste of the high life.

“Upton's direction seems to say ’This isn’t a horror story, it’s theatre. It’s a comedy.’”

It’s disgusting, it’s Trumpian, it’s something that happens all the goddamn time, and Upton’s direction seems to say, “Well, this is what these men are – and aren’t they clever and aren’t they funny? Laugh at them! This isn’t a horror story, it’s theatre. It’s a comedy.”

Lachy Hulme as Charles, and Damon Herriman as Bob, in STC's Speed-the-Plow
Photograph: Lisa Tomasetti

The thing is, it’s not funny at all.

So Bob throws Karen a bone in return for his boner and gives her a pity job – he allows her to do the “courtesy read” of this novel by an “East Coast fruit” that Bob himself was assigned. He doesn’t care what she thinks of the book, but he’ll take her report that night as his apartment, because she might fuck him there. And also, the worst thing you can be is gay, so let’s use that as an insult and not make Bob seem like a dick for doing so.

(Gay people still can’t get married in Australia, if you were wondering, and there are currently no avenues for pushing through new legislation to make it so – so these jokes are extra funny right now. Seems like Upton forgot to take the national temperature when deciding to let those lines be funny and float, rather than thud to the ground like the offensive and outdated crap that they are).

So Karen reads the book and she loves it. Rose Byrne is lovely here, more wide-eyed reborn woman than powerbroker as she tries to convince Bob to take on this project instead of the blockbuster star vehicle where the hero avoids gang-rape by black prisoners (of COURSE they're black) to team up with the gang instead. (Fuck this play!).

Of course Karen and Bob fuck offstage and of course it changes Bob’s mind and of course Karen only fucked him to get the job and of course the men eviscerate her and of course this powerbroker-manipulator-woman, now revealed and shamed, literally ends her part in the play by saying she doesn’t think she belongs in that world anymore before slinking out the door. And of course the men greenlight the piece of shit movie and the status quo is preserved.

"...women [are] reduced, AGAIN, to sexual manipulators with nothing but ambition and Eve-tendencies between the ears."

And of course I leave feeling like STC give more shits about Mamet’s prestige than they do about the actual human women who buy theatre tickets and love Rose Byrne – a modern comic hero for women, the woman whose entire brand says women can do everything and also be funny and cool and weird. We ticket-buying women have to see women reduced, AGAIN, to sexual manipulators with nothing but ambition and Eve-tendencies between the ears.

These women who buy theatre tickets are my people. The teenagers who sigh over the romance and friendship and political awakening of Wicked and the little girls who feel like Matilda and who are slowly learning what else is on stages across the city; the women who know we’re supposed to focus on Desdemona’s goodness and faith rather than the part where she’s killed in a shocking, stomach-churning act of intimate partner violence. The women who buy subscriptions to the Ensemble or go down the pub to the Old Fitz or make the trip to the Eternity Playhouse and wait, just fucking wait, for someone to remember that women can do more than service a man’s storyline; that women can have identities and power too. The women who go to theatre despite Look Back in Anger being considered a genius piece worth re-staging, even though women are beaten and emotionally abused all the way through it for no real, clear end – except to show that men are angry. Those women are like me: ridiculously hopeful, smart, and trying to keep this art alive. Waiting and wishing for something on stage that doesn’t sneer at us or objectify us.

And then we go to Speed-the-Plow, and wonder: what is the point.

Leah Purcell wrote and starred in a reimagination of The Drover's Wife at Belvoir
Photograph: Brett Boardman

This year hasn’t been all bad: we’ve had The Hanging at Sydney Theatre Company, The Drover’s Wife at Belvoir, and the queer cabaret Hot Brown Honey, created and performed by First Nations women, at Sydney Opera House. Last month, the all-female content showcase Festival Fatale took over the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst; it featured a one-off staging of Patricia Cornelius’ Slut, which was like a prayer to the teenage girl, while Candy Bowers’ Australian Booty and the three-woman all-gut-punch Black Birds were a timely reminder that white feminism is just bullshit racism in disguise if it doesn’t lift up all women. Another all-female theatre showcase called Invisible Circus is currently showing at King’s Cross Theatre. We also had Zoe Coombs Marr take on the comedy world with her marvellous Trigger Warning.

Hot Brown Honey played at Sydney Opera House in May 2016
Photograph: Dylan Evans

But the fact that I can list the theatre that’s good to women in one paragraph, and don’t have the space or time in my Sunday night to list the hundreds of shows that wanted to demean me, and women like me, is fucked up.

I go the theatre a few times a week because I love it, and because even though I don’t expect every play to be about me – a lesbian woman in her thirties with a cat, who is full of words and opinions and forgets to seek and participate in love – I do expect it to show us the best and worst of all shapes of humanity.

It’s Turnbull’s Australia; it’s Trump’s America. We’re in the grasp of neoliberalism and toxic conservatism; pockets of protest and disruption are alive, but slow to hit the main stages. And so too, apparently, is respect for half the fucking population.

I’ll keep going, but I know to temper my waiting for more with the reality of diminishing returns; I won’t hold my breath.

But if you produce shows – if you direct them – if you program them – if you write them – just think. Just. Take a minute. And think. What are you trying to say? Do you want women to pay for tickets? (Bearing in mind that not only do they represent half the population, but they out-gun men when it comes to cultural consumption).

Then think twice about screwing us over.

This is an edited version of a piece originally published on the author's own site.

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