Slut

Theatre, Drama
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Slut
Photograph: Clare Hawley
Bobbie-Jean Henning, Julia Dray, Jessica Keogh, Danielle Stamoulos and Maryann Wright

Patricia Cornelius' short, razor-sharp play is an ode to the teenage girl as she really is – not as society casts her

Teenage girls are having a moment in the media. One Directioner turned soulful solo act Harry Styles sang their praises in a recent interview; their culture is being taken seriously via critical examination; their passionate love for things has been celebrated in the wake of the recent terrorist attack on Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester. 

It’s the perfect time then for Patricia Cornelius’ Slut, a short gut-punch of a play, to take up residence at the Old Fitz. It’s not pretty – the language is a snarl of Aussie colloquialisms and vivid, disturbing imagery – but it is a work that honours the teenage girl without sanitising her, exposing the structures around her that give rise to labels like ‘nasty’ and ‘bitch’ and, yes, ‘slut.’

Told by a chorus of friends sporting school uniforms and relaxed postures – deliberately taking up space – Slut is the story of Lolita (Jessica Keogh): a bold and bubbly-bright girl whose life changes course when she’s only 10 years old. That’s the year she grows breasts, and everyone notices. 

Lolita tries to cope with the reality of objectification, but it’s a force that one cannot fight on one’s own, and there isn’t much help to be found. The slights vary in size and impact – Lolita’s father handing the oars of their canoe to her little brother, even though Lolita felt strong; the inappropriate touch of a teacher; a horrific, ignored abuse – but each is important. Cornelius is primarily concerned with the ways these incidents intersect to become a barrier, blocking Lolita from a happy life. As the play moves towards its terrible end, it feels inevitable. There isn’t much room for hope when the patriarchy has decided a woman’s worth is only related to her body.

Slut is only 40 minutes long, but Cornelius (one of our sharpest playwrights, whose works place women front and centre) writes with astonishing economy; in this small amount of time, in so few words, she constructs an entire life. The friends (played by Julia Dray, Bobbie-Jean Henning, Danielle Stamoulos, Maryann Wright) are less defined, but director Erin Taylor and her excellent cast bring full life to each one – they’re the kind of girl squad Taylor Swift would run from, rough as guts but still moralistic (an extension of Australia’s conflicted national identity).  

The four friends also serve as a twisted Greek Chorus to chart the pressures and powers of femininity. They are complicit in Lolita’s downfall, in a way, but their aggression is socialised to be performed against women. There’s that heady, 15-year-old nastiness: girls moving in packs and constructing new enemies out of friends because it’s the only place in their life where anger is appropriate. There’s that sense of self-preservation, of avoiding Lolita’s suffering by distancing themselves from her reputation. There’s that sense of conflict and judgment, awe and disgust, built from the ground up as a result of living in a rape culture that punishes women for their sexualities.  

Keogh’s Lolita – buffeted from story to story by the girls until she finally breaks out (twice) to speak for herself – is sensitively rendered and remarkably layered. In Lolita’s reality, little freedoms have been removed and little choices have been made on her behalf, and the slights have seemed so small that it isn’t until she has forgotten how to want more for herself that she realises just how much she has lost. Keogh’s slow realisation of her forced simplicity and reduced humanity is heartbreaking.

Taylor has found the inner musicality present in each of Cornelius’ lines, and in Slut it’s the relentless rhythm that propels us forward, unable to stop for too long on any one moment: time must keep marching on in the play like it does in our own lives. Further shaped by Nate Edmondson’s sound, which is designed to engage our hearts, the production feels like an assault, a prayer, a wake-up call. 

The current shape of our world destroys women. Slut’s purpose is to show that it’s the fault of our social foundations – white male supremacy – when a woman’s body is her downfall. It’s to remind us that objectification starts early. Send your teenage sons; they might learn something. But more importantly: send every teenage girl you know. They’ll feel seen.

By: Cassie Tongue

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