Bold as ‘SHIT’

By Fiona McGregor

Susie Dee and Patricia Cornelius deliver the wake-up call Australian theatre needs

SHIT opens with the expletive repeated in dizzying variation by the three cast members, who saunter upstage snarling and spitting for all their worth. Nicci Wilks (Billy), Sarah Ward (Bobby) and Peta Brady (Sam) are three scrubbers from the wrong side of the tracks. There they stand, all in a row, screaming at us. The confrontation is unrelenting: the hour goes by in seconds.

They’re funny at first, then as their stories unravel the mood darkens. All have gone through foster homes. Memories of kind guardians are far outweighed by those of tyrannical, puritanical ones. Or simply the well meaning who can’t reach such damaged humans.

Down we go, into the vortex, through a litany of abuse and violence. The girls think they’re shit, life is shit, the world is shit. They turn on everyone, including one another. In between are chinks of humour, such as a scene where each brags about her physical attributes. It ends in pathos, with Bobby lamenting her body, hating it as something alien to her. “This wasn’t part of the plan,” she sobs.

A Dee and Cornelius production, SHIT has deservedly been produced constantly since its debut in Melbourne two years ago. It ran to acclaim at this year’s Sydney Festival – I haven’t seen so many people rush to a piece of theatre in years. Director Susie Dee and writer Patricia Cornelius have been collaborating for 30 years. The performances of this, the original, cast at Sydney’s Seymour Centre (until Saturday, 29 July) are all so well greased the actors may as well be their characters. They complement one another beautifully. Wilks, with her greasy grown-out bleached hair, tight little skirt and top, struts about like a bantam. Her gravelly Strine could fill a concert theatre. Ward is a stealthy counterpart, seemingly softer but whipping in from the side time and again. Brady grounds the trio, conveying as much with silence as with words. Possibly the most sympathetic, but just as you think that, she delivers a vicious diatribe against crying. Not a second of self-pity, or even self-care, is permitted.

Dee moves the performers dexterously as notes in a score, in a combination of competition and support, the baton passing seamlessly between the three. The script is so refined I’m going to order it as soon as I file this. I suspect it’s timeless, too, in that it could be set in 1974 as easily as 2014. Which leads me to that other vexed issue of representation – wouldn’t it be great to see it again with a cast of women from non-Anglo backgrounds?

The actors are agile as wildcats, prowling around the stage, plonking to the ground, backs against the set, Wilks giving us a big beaver at one point. Marg Horwell’s set is a simple rectangular block with three windows that each character leaps into from time to time, to lounge and carp. Other scenes – the most terrible and murky – are played out half obscured behind it. There’s an incredible vignette where each occupies her window seat, miming grief, rage and wrist-cutting in a glowering light sequence by Rachel Burke that contorts the girls’ faces into Munch-like agony. The ending is tragic, and seemingly inevitable. But there is a triumph of sorts in how the trio stick by one another till the bitter end. And in all their stroppy pride, their insistence on being heard.

But that’s a trick of the theatre. Because it’s Cornelius who brought them to us. Otherwise these women are more likely to be in prison than in this theatre. Not only could they not afford to go to the theatre, they might not even want to, assuming rightly they would never see themselves reflected, considered by most as too abject to be subjects of art.

I wanted to resist an animal metaphor for this reason: I hated, for instance, the premise the film Animal Kingdom conferred on its criminal characters with that title. But there’s the sense of an invisible cage in the theatre. It encloses us, the audience, as much as the characters. Most theatregoers are protected from the shit these girls grew up with. This is as close as we’ll get. Cornelius has been around a long time and is highly decorated; her work should be in repertory alongside Williamson and Gow. Class bias, as well as gender bias, keeps her out of our flagship theatre companies, where the lion’s share of funding goes. Good on Melbourne Theatre Company for producing this in 2015. May there be more like it.

In a Neon interview online, Cornelius could be quoting from the Artaud textbook when she reminds us, “Really good independent theatre is radical. It is actually going to shock you. It is actually going to make you think differently.”

SHIT sure fucking did. We need more like it.


Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

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