Content warning: this article mentions themes of sexual violence
At one of Australia’s oldest and most revered residential colleges, scandals never happen. At least, as far as the general public knows. But what goes on behind closed mahogany doors is a different matter, especially when abundant coffers can cover up all sorts of unsavoury goings-on. This gets complicated when resident student and aspiring journalist Nikki Falateu (Emily Havea) brings a serious allegation to Jo Mulligan (Fiona Press), the first female Master in the college’s hundred-year history and the person who writes those ‘never happened’ cheques. A heated online debate and PR crisis looms.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the topics of consent and sexual violence are very alive in the zeitgeist right now, especially as they relate to the education system. It’s a topic being interrogated in television and film (revenge thriller Promising Young Woman being the movie to see in 2020) and literature (Diana Reid’s acclaimed recent debut novel Love & Virtue also explores rape culture on Australian university campuses).
In a very real way, this play also mirrors the current push for holistic sexual consent education being debated in the Australian parliament currently as it probes hazing culture and the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality. But while student activist and Time Out Future Shaper Chanel Contos boldly centered her own survival story in the Teach Us Consent petition, the protagonist in this story commandeers the experience of another, her new friend and naive uni fresher Paige (played with empathy-inducing innocence by Julia Robertson), to launch her call to action, throwing an entirely different conversation around intention and consent into the mix.
While the synopsis reads very ‘of the moment’, Wherever She Wanders has had an unusually long gestation period. Rescheduled three times by the unpredictability of Covid before finally making it onto the stage at Griffin Theatre’s home off Kings Cross, award-winning playwright Kendall Feaver (The Almighty Sometimes) actually first started pitching a play about university students navigating sexual consent around 2012/2013. In a bittersweet twist, Griffin did not have to worry about this show losing its currency despite more than one postponement. Working collaboratively with director Tessa Leong (associate artistic director of Griffin Theatre Company), Feaver drew on generations of fight, hope, and also despondency to tell this tale.
Video on stage is having a moment in Sydney’s theatre scene – in STC’s trippy and televisual reimagining of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Hayes Theatre’s recent production of Merrily We Roll Along, and Belvoir Theatre’s Fangirls, to name just a few relevant examples – and that is not lost in this production. With design by Ella Butler, the sometimes awkward wedge of stage at SBW Stables Theatre is turned into a minimalistic blank canvas, a void to be filled with suggestion. The real world intersects with the virtual, as statements and debates fire off on social media, and Nikki and Paige escape (and face) their realities in an open world video game. These interludes help to act out the nebulous yet immutable presence of the virtual world in our personal lives and in public debate, as well as lifting the load placed on the actors (and the audience) in telling a story so steeped in real-world trauma.
Video designer Susie Henderson (Fangirls, Chop Chef) transforms the stage into a neon-laced glowing mythical world where the young women have difficult conversations through a bizarre medium. Elsewhere, the lighting design by Govin Ruben and composition and sound design by James Brown further work to transport the small theatre into college parties, a religious hall and a spectrum of moods.
Perhaps the loudest thread in this story explores the frictions between younger and older generations of feminists and activists. Nikki, a determined young woman of colour with microaggressions beyond those based on gender to navigate, goes head to head with Jo, a tired second-wave feminist and career woman whose days of marching for women’s rights are resigned to her lost youth. Jo is selective about when and where she chooses to rock the boat, playing along with the boys to preserve her position of power, but she won’t show that the leering sexist chanting songs that have been passed down through generations of male students still haunt her. Actor Fiona Press brings nearly four decades of acting experience to the role of Jo, and she makes the character feel very real in her unvarnished truth. Steeped in a personal tug-of-war of world weary wisdom and ignorance, this performance is a reassuring anchor to a story wrapped in catastrophe.
After having seen Emily Havea (Kill Climate Deniers, Griffin) light up stages in supporting roles on the Sydney theatre scene for years, notably as Joan in the STC and MTC co-production of Fun Home, witnessing her step into a leading role was a welcome sight. She handles the roundabout of swings and misses, anger, determination, self-doubt and regret of Nikki with grace and clarity.
Through moments of light and dark, Wherever She Wanders exposes more questions than it answers. It does not leave its audience with any convenient catharsis, but rather with a stark reality to face and a reminder that experiences of sexual assault and how to deal with them are rarely clear cut. But the victims deserve to be heard, and perpetrators held accountable. While people in positions of power continue to pass around the blame, the culture needs to be changed, and it needs to start somewhere.
Wherever She Wanders plays at SBW Stables Theatre until December 11, Monday-Saturday at 7pm with a matinee on Saturdays at 1pm. Book your tickets here.