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Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. Izabella Yena and Dan Speilman sit on a desk looking at eachother in the production of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes
    Photograph: Supplied/Jaimi Joy
  2. Izabella Yena and Dan Speilman kiss against a wall in the production of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes
    Photograph: Supplied/Jaimi Joy
  3. Dan Speilman puckers up and tries to kiss Izabella Yena's elbow in a production of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes
    Photograph: Supplied/Jaimi Joy

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

This 80 minute sex-spiced scandal is hilariously harrowing

Staying true to its title, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes kicks off with a moment of sexual misconduct from a particuarly unsavoury member of the middle class. Jon, the show’s self-proclaimed ‘rockstar professor’ (played by Dan Speilman) grins jauntily at the audience with his legs spread wide in a desk chair, all while sipping from a thermos that, he says proudly, just had his urine in it a mere few days prior. It’s cool, he says. He’s given it a rinse.

This opening scene, with it’s witty one-liners and crass corners is a good set-up for an 80-minute play that takes the audience places it doesn’t expect (or sometimes want) to go. Peppy pop-culture meets conversational comedy to create a smoke-screen concealing far more insidious truths about sexual violence, old men and young girls that feel at once both historic and timely. 

Written by Canadian Hannah Moscovitch and directed by Australian Petra Kalive, this Aussie take of the 2020 novel is cryptically hilarious – and yet also hazily harrowing. Following the relationship between 19-year-old Annie, played by Izabella Yena, and Jon, her aforementioned rockstar professor over three disparate time periods, this play is a meticulously-written exploration of sexual power dynamics and the nuances of the innate imbalances that exist between young women and older men, particularly in forbidden forests like that of the university campus. 

Yena’s Annie starts off as a bright-eyed young woman with lofty dreams, her 19-years indicated by her doc martin boots and soft-eyed adoration in the presence of Jon, whose seedy villainy is barely shrouded by his deliberately innocent “I’m a man of academia! A lovable witty buffoon!” act. Unfortunately, it takes Annie some years, and much teeth-clenching on behalf of the audience, to finally see through it. Yena moves seamlessly through disparate decades of Annie’s life and is utterly convincing as a fresh first-year student, then as an outraged 23-year-old trying to assert her selfhood, and finally, as an ageless young-old woman, imbued with the power of a silent executioner. 

There is a depth to Yena’s Annie, with her being rooted in a groundedness and vitality of spirit that remains consistently in place despite all that happens to her. It is this steadiness that keeps the audience arrested, while also allowing Annie to be seen for who she truly is, rather than (despite what he lectures), the trope Jon has relegated her to - sexual cipher, pornographic object of sin and sirenic downfall. She transcends this and transcends it well. 

Speilman’s Jon is organic, and for the most part, so believable that at one point, you can actually feel the audience pointedly, and en masse, hate him. With his performance only occasionally leaning on the hyper-dramatised (in fairness, this is theatre), his embodiment of the ‘cool’ arty professor, one that many of us have had, is frighteningly relatable, underlined by set designer Marg Horwell’s vision of an academic bachelor’s pad. Jon’s clothes never change as the years roll by, and neither does his chaotic office, with the play’s sprawling time-scape contained only in Annie, the singular cast member who comes, changes and then goes. 

With the play narrated by him, all from his skewed and sleazy perspective, it was easy to feel enraged by the infuriating minutiae of straight male transgressions – the silent walking away, the subtle power games, the holding approval over your head like barbed wire disguised as mistletoe – all of these things, and more, were thrown into fearfully clear relief by Spielman’s performance, with him perfectly (and seemingly unknowingly) encapsulating the experiences of so many women at the hands of so many similar men. 

Intimacy coach Michala Banas was instrumental in creating a soft suggestion of sex that titillates without being too obvious, with the intimate scenes transporting the audience into a dream-like inbetween filled with an eerie sense of claustrophobia. It is through this all-female run show, that the crass jokes are weaponised and thrown on their head, with the real truth of the story revealed through the moments of tender silence that pepper the production. It is this space between the two characters that, despite being hampered by a slightly jarring twist at the end, ultimately turns everything on its head.

In light of the recent court battle between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, and the widespread social-media vilification that followed, the need to remember the gendered violence that bubbles so closely beneath the skin of society feels more pressing than ever. For young women who are just starting to take on the world (this theatre critic included), we are often warned of the silent threats of the universe. Sadly, despite everything we are told, it is all too often up to us to uncover those threats. They come into our lives wearing strange and invisible hats, disguised as bookish men that love poetry, but who, despite their woke-baiting claims to feminism, kind of don’t really see women as human people. 

The Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes strikes a resounding chord, exposing in a thoroughly bright and entertaining way, just how far we all still have to go. It’s a play that invites us to think about where we sit in it all, with its power continuing to resonate long after the stage lights switch off. 

Want to lose yourself in more Sydney shows? Check out our comprehensive list of the best theatre on this month.

Written by Maya Skidmore


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