Caryl Churchill's provocative modern classic returns to smash the glass ceiling all over again
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls remains one of the greatest plays written about women’s rights, the patriarchy and the intersection of same with social class. This new Sydney Theatre Company staging, led by director Imara Savage, sets the bar high and early for the best production of 2018.
Written in 1982, Top Girls opens with Marlene (the astonishingly sharp Helen Thomson) hosting a fantasy dinner party with distinguished women from history. There’s Griselda (Paula Arundell) from the English folkloric tradition – catch her in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales; Isabella Bird (Kate Box), the 19th-century explorer; Lady Nijo (Michelle Lim Davidson) a Buddhist nun from the 12th century; Pope Joan (Heather Mitchell), who may or may not have been an ancient actual female pope; and Dull Gret (Contessa Treffone); a Flemish warrior who took the fight to Hell itself. Marlene has just accepted a promotion – she’ll be Managing Director of an employment agency – and so, she figures, she might as well celebrate with her peers.
The scene is remarkable in Savage’s hands and with this ensemble of actors – carefully scripted lines feel entirely off-the-cuff, balancing wit and emotion with great clarity and precision. This confident, incisive style continues as the entire play shifts, and shifts again – from the second act in Marlene’s employment agency, where we see women at work and looking for work, marked by the invisible blockades of men – and into the third, which sees Marlene venture away from London to her hometown to visit her sister Joyce (Box, weary and outstanding) and niece Angie (Treffone, adolescently suffering).
But with each shift we are discovering a pattern: the toll imposed on women who succeed, the compromise that must be made and betrayals orchestrated and suffered. Pope Joan was stoned to death when her gender was revealed; later Mitchell reappears as an older woman looking for a new job, finally unable to bear watching younger, less qualified men promoted above her. Paula Arundell and Michelle Lim Davidson double as Marlene’s co-workers at the agency, laying out discrimination in the workplace and the struggles of building a career as they meet clients and chat. Claire Lovering, in two very different parts, tracks the evolution of a woman’s life into submission to her husband. Every woman feels real. Every moment is packed with anger, loss, humour, and struggle. No one is completely happy.
Savage’s work here is exceptional – her keen eye and sixth-sense for interior momentum are enough to make her one of Australia’s greatest working directors, but she inspires greatness in her actors and collaborators too – encouraging them to greater heights. David Fleischer’s design is stark when it needs to be and gorgeously realistic in the third act, when we need those recognisable touchstones the most, and Renée Mulder's costumes straddle centuries and varying life circumstances with ease, creating a vibrant palette of character studies in clothes. Max Lyandvert’s sound design is cunning, with scene transitions marked with bursts of defiant punk, and Damien Cooper’s lights are judicious, playing off set pieces and script concerns to bolster atmosphere.
Often, reviews will say that a play written decades ago has found new relevance today, and it’s very often true – there are issues, fears, and hardships that persist from even hundreds of years ago, emotional touchstones in drama we can still identify with now in a future those playwrights could never have remembered. But Top Girls is different. Top Girls is our present reality as much as it was back in 1982, not so much urgent as it is achingly resonant with our current social struggles. Women are still devalued within a patriarchal social structure, but it is the superstructure – the capitalism that insists we prioritise the individual over the collective, the fight to be an executive and male-assimilate over the fight for rights for all workers – that is even more insidious.
In the final scene of the play, Marlene and Joyce sit in a run-down working class kitchen and lay all their cards on the table: their difficulties, their differences and the true price Marlene has paid to climb the corporate ladder and live comfortably. On opening night, no one in the audience moved or made a sound; when the play ended, its last moment hung suspended in the air before it was finally broken a thunderous, rising wave of applause. This play will arrest you, make you still, make you listen. It is a masterpiece play, and this is a masterpiece production.