Malthouse Theatre’s ‘Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.’ is an exciting but nihilistic condemnation of how contemporary feminism has been derailed
It’s 2017, and we’re smack bang in the middle of the third wave – or is it the fourth wave? – of feminism. And all these decades of activism have led … where?
Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., a play in the tradition of both Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane, presents this question as a confronting work of ill-behaved theatre. It’s given a remarkable production – sharp, intelligent and fierce – by director Janice Muller at Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne (until 9 July). And yet I walked out feeling equal parts excited and disappointed.
It’s easy to see why Birch, a young Royal Court playwright whose work has gone on to productions in the US, has attracted notice. She’s a writer with a powerful sense of poetic theatricality, and she employs a truthful, satirical edge that can open out bleakly into violence.
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is a comprehensive condemnation of the derailments of contemporary feminism, in particular the liberal mantras of “choice” and “empowerment” that substitute for any real sense of liberation. It’s a scream of protest against the violence done to women, through language, erasure and self-annihilation.
Birch isn’t afraid of crudity. Each scene is over-mounted by a slogan – REVOLUTIONISE THE LANGUAGE (INVERT IT), REVOLUTIONISE THE WORLD (DON’T REPRODUCE) – that introduces (often with acid irony) its argument. The scenes often subvert or call into question the slogans, which themselves hark back uneasily to an earlier, more revolutionary feminism.
Act One opens with a domestic scene of verbal foreplay that quickly turns hilarious when a glamorously gowned woman (Sophie Ross) turns the language of male desire against her partner (Gareth Reeves). When she inverts his language, turning him into a sexual object, using the same metaphors of penetration and violent possession that are common in masculine tropes of desire, he is taken aback.
Other similar encounters follow: a marriage proposal from Reeves is rejected because his intended wife (Ming-Zhu Hii) likens the institution to being a suicide bomber; an employee (Elizabeth Esguerra) asks for Mondays off to sleep, while her boss (Belinda McClory) simply can’t understand existence outside the neoliberal modes of constant production; and, finally, two supermarket employees interrogate a customer who has been found half-naked in aisle seven, doing something unmentionable with watermelons.
The hapless watermelon woman (Ross) climbs out of the top of the box set and gives a speech about the constant invasion of the female body. She describes various ways of women asserting their autonomy – cosmetics, barbed wire – but “no fortification [is] strong enough”. The only defence is collusion: “Lie down and become available. Constantly. Want to be entered. Constantly. It cannot be an Invasion, if you want it.”
At this point the text spins into Act Two, and begins to spiral into chaos. At its centre is a family drama between a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter; it reveals a sequence of brutal domestic violence interiorised by the women and passed down. The repression enacted here struck me as a particularly British neuroticism, which doesn’t quite transfer to an Australian context, although it is recognisable. Act Three is chaos, an enactment of linguistic and psychic breakdown. Act Four presents itself as conclusion, the announcement of both revolution and failure.
This text presents unique challenges that have all been answered in Muller’s production. Designer Marg Horwell has the slogans in huge Barbara Kruger-esque signs that sit high above the moveable box set in the middle of the huge Merlyn Theatre space. It’s brilliantly lit by Emma Valente, with an appropriately jagged sound design by James Brown.
The cast is remarkable, attacking the text with an accuracy that brings a sharpness and truth to its extremes. Belinda McClory’s performance alone is worth the price of the ticket: she is a dazzling presence, all edges and wounds.
As I walked out, I didn’t quite know what to think. Up to the end of the first act I felt a taut sense of expectation, which was ultimately deflated by what felt like simplistic conclusions: a despair that felt too easy, a vision of economic and social revolution and “the eradication of all men”. The language here becomes less accurate, relying on an exhausted emotional drive that manifests as empty repetition: “at some point I opened my eyes at some point I looked up and it felt like wastelands and wastelands and wastelands and wastelands …”
It’s hard not think of Churchill’s work while watching Revolt. Birch, while employing some of Churchill’s techniques of elision and linguistic associativity, never quite manages Churchill’s subtlety and political edge or, it must be said, humanity. Her mostly nameless characters are deliberately sketched as caricatures, but caricatures are what they remain. Birch presents a picture of being under the tyranny of neoliberal patriarchy that is entirely bleak, even nihilistic. It’s a protest against imprisonment that doesn’t seem able to envision anything beyond the prison walls.
It made me think of the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who was executed by the German Freikorps in 1919. “Being human means joyfully throwing your whole life ‘on the scales of destiny’ when need be,” she wrote, “but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud.” There is none of that rejoicing in this play.
There’s an erasure here, not only of history but also of experience and self, which can’t reach beyond itself. “Who knew that life could be so awful?” says one character in the final moment. And the inevitable thought is, lots of people know how awful life can be, all the time, every day. This exposure of a certain blindness may, of course, be the point of the play, but the lack of any alternative vision struck me as naive, the product of privilege that has been able to ignore injustice.
All the same, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. It’s great to see a text like this given all the resources of a main-stage production, and rendered so brilliantly. It makes me hope that perhaps we can see some similar Australian texts given the same treatment.