Shit

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Shit
Photograph: Prudence Upton
Peta Brady, Nicci Wilks and Sarah Ward

Susie Dee's 2015 production of Patricia Cornelius's all-female play, a hit at MTC Neon 2015, travels north for a short season at Sydney Festival

Patricia Cornelius’s new play is an outright provocation as the title suggests. It dares to put three female characters on the stage who are rarely if ever given a theatrical voice. Rough, rude and irrevocably damaged, they are the kind of people most theatre-goers would cross the street to avoid – but under the rich talents of the playwright and the extraordinary direction of Susie Dee, they make a compelling and heartbreaking subject. 

Billy (Nicci Wilks) opens the play with an expletive-fuelled rant that is hilarious and also politically charged. She barrages the audience with more fucks than prepositions – something even her friends Bobby (Sarah Ward) and Sam (Peta Brady) find over the top.

Cornelius’s particular talent for turning flat realistic speech into a kind of heightened street verse is on immediate display. And as the women’s stories become clearer, as the abuse and marginalisation eat away at any hope we may have for them, the play’s real power comes to the fore. Despite the characters’ energy and vigour, the sense of despair and inevitable narrowing of options begins to choke them. They turn on each other, they mock each other’s attempts to imagine a better life, and eventually they egg each other into senseless and self-defeating violence. 

Cornelius’s play is in many ways a companion to her award-winning work Savages. That play was about four men aboard a cruise ship who channel their dissatisfaction and self-doubt into an act of random violence against an innocent victim. Shit inverts and mirrors this setup, showing us three female characters who start out doomed, already fucked up in the womb, existing in a world that can only end in acts of cruelty.

The performances are heroic. Wilks is brilliantly brittle as the foul-mouthed Billy, Brady is lovely as the longing Sam, and Ward is a revelation as the stoic Bobby. Dee’s direction is nothing short of electric, introducing a haunting lyricism to Cornelius’s rough-hewn poetry through daring but restrained use of movement.

The set design (Marg Horwell) is genius, simply evoking the concrete blandness of the street while variously suggesting caves and bedrooms and lockups, augmented magnificently by Rachel Burke’s lighting design.

Shit is pretty much the shit. It conveys a world most of us would rather ignore, but it manages to do so without condescension or earnestness or cant. Cornelius and Dee have worked together for many years, and their humanity and skill have produced a killer play. It’s easily the best thing Melbourne audiences have seen in the independent sector this year.

This review originally ran in Time Out Melbourne, for the MTC NEON season in 2015.

By: Tim Byrne

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