Review: Top Girls, or, why I’m happy to be a young feminist

by Jane

In 1982, the New York Times described Top Girls as “intent on breaking rules.” Thirty years later, Top Girls feels rather a lot like a Well Made Play. Playwright Caryl Churchill has been so influential on the current crop of playwrights that seeing her work on stage now as part of the canon it feels simply that – part of the canon, no longer radical.

And in that tradition, Catherine Fitzgerald’s production for the State Theatre Company is a well made production. Maintaining the eighties setting with shoulder pads intact, and with solid performances from the cast the show rips along much faster than you would suspect of its nearly three hours running time.

Mary Moore’s set keeps it mainly simple: a curved dining table in the first scene, several (computer-less, even for 1982) desks and a office percolator, a small wall for Kit (Carissa Lee) and Angie (Antje Guenther)’s hideaway, a couch and table in Joyce’s home; location settings somewhat unnecessarily indicated by large stagnant projections. The simplicity of Moore’s set – which places the characters and text at the centre of the production, is overshadowed though, by a confusingly literal interpretation of the “glass ceiling” metaphor.

At the dinner party the glass ceiling has been broken – although it is very clear that most of these women just managed to survive within the patriarchy, not beyond it: being stoned to death, giving up their children at the test of their partners, living as a concubine and a nun. At the office, too, the glass ceiling is broken – Marlene (Ulli Birvé) receiving a top job at Top Girls, this is clear enough. In Suffolk, at the home of Marlene’s working class sister Joyce (Eileen Darley), the ceiling remains intact and unbroken. Most confusingly, though, is when the glass ceiling descends during the last scene of the play (the first scene chronologically), as Marlene and Joyce talk. Saying what, exactly? The more time you spend in a lower class area the lower your ceiling becomes? The act of women talking to each other causes the ceiling to drop? The restrictions on the  working class Joyce are certainly greater than her now middle class sister, but why the lowering?

Some costumes, too, were interesting choices. Pope Joan (Guenther) looked dressed ready to attend a five-year-old’s fairy birthday party, and I wondered where Lady Nijo (Lia Reutens) managed to find a nude, strapless bra in the thirteenth century, let alone why the entire right cup sat above the top of her dress.

These are just distractions, though. While Chruchill’s script gives little room for modulation in the characters – the hard lined Marlene, hell-bent at getting to the top at the exclusion of all others mirrored against her socialist sister, a single mother stuck in menial cleaning jobs – Fitzgerald has brought out solid performances from all women involved. And although Reutens’ Lady Nijo, with high pitched giggles behind an outstretched hand, veers perilously close to Orientalism, her Win gives some moments of rare heart in the Top Girls office.

It’s an unfortunate state of the arts that a first act of over one hundred minutes had us bracing as we went into the theatre, but Fitzgerald and her cast keep the work moving so it isn’t felt. The three distinct sections of the work play with different constructs, and this keeps the play moving forward: from the overlapping dialogue and relationships in the party between women who maybe never had peers like they find at the dinner table, the short scenes about early eighties offices and work personas of women coming together, to the most naturalistic and traditional family scene in Joyce’s Suffolk home where the women are set against each other. The cast take to these different structures with ease, and in some of the doubling the actors are unrecognisable from one another.

But within this solid production, I am deeply, deeply saddened that Fitzgerald thinks this is a play with contemporary relevance. That she doesn’t see that the world we inherited from her generation is a much better world than Churchill was writing in. While we may not prescribe to the oft derided mantra “women can have it all” (what a storm that article threw up), we don’t believe we will have to make a choice of career or family – nor if we choose the latter it’s goodbye to the former forever. We were raised, many of us, by feminist women – and men – who worked hard to make sure we are inheriting a good world. A world where we don’t believe it will be harder for us to get a job because we’re a woman – and our male peers don’t believe they’re entitled to a role above us, and rather I think many would be insulted by the notion they just received a job because they are a man. A world where female boss is just as common as a male boss.

Our mothers kept their names when they married – if indeed they married at all. They had children and careers or their own businesses. They raised us to believe we could be anything we wanted to be – and a twelve-year-old girl saying she wants to be a nuclear physicist is nothing to be scoffed at. For us as young girls in Australia there was never a sense we couldn’t be Prime Minister just because there had never been a female PM before. It was just something we hadn’t quite got around to yet.

It’s not that the world we currently live in is all happy and rosy. We haven’t “solved feminism” any more than feminisim has failed. The state of politics against women in the US is truly scary, and every now and then Australian politics and politicians echo these sentiments. Casual misogyny and everyday sexism runs through much of Australian culture and media. The pay gap is currently the highest it has been in my lifetime. I am incredibly privileged above many women in our society because I am white, educated, and able bodied. Top Girls has been remarked upon by many as an interesting choice for both the STCSA and the Melbourne Theatre Company after the Women in Theatre debate.

But these fights – as tiring and heartbreaking as they may be – are very different fights than the perception that a man may have a heart attack if a woman is promoted above him.

As young women in Australia, we’re not worried that we can’t have a job and have children. We’re not worried we’ll be looked over for a job because of the conscious belief a man would do the job better. We don’t have to hide an engagement when looking for a job, or fake an engagement when looking for a rental home.

And the reason we’re not worried about these things is because we believe the women before us – the women Fitzgerald would call her peers – already sorted that shit out for us. There are many many battles which still need to be fought. But we have the luxury of believing a fight for our careers, a fights for our family, a fight for our happiness, are not our fights. Other women fought them for us. And for that we are eternally grateful.

Beyond being a feminist or women playwright, Churchill as an artist has given so much to contemporary Australian playwrights. Of the ten playwrights interviewed on The Australian Theatre Writers Project, five (Tom Holloway, Ross Mueller, Lachlan Philpott, Christine Evans, and Noëlle Janaczewska) speak about Churchill as an influence. When I interviewed Nicki Bloom about Land & Sea she, too, spoke about the influence of Churchill on her work and on the work of her contemporaries.

It is a great thing to see the words of a playwright who has influenced so many come to life on stage. But it remains to me sad and perplexing that we’re seeing Churchill’s words from 1982 above those who share our world today.

Why aren’t we seeing the words of these playwrights borne from Churchill? People who are telling contemporary stories about contemporary lives. Australia is filled with women playwrights writing about women – and male playwrights writing about women, too. Why are contemporary issues not given a contemporary voice?

Or, as we are seeing Churchill’s words from 1982, why are we maintaining the 1982 setting and maintaining a line that it is contemporary and relevant, and not the museum piece of theatre it really is?

I am so thankful that I don’t have to face the battles Churchill perceived her countrywomen facing thirty years ago. And I hope that in another thirty years the battles we face now will have long ago been eroded and a thing of another generation – of my generation. And I hope that when that time comes I won’t be worried that there aren’t any young feminists, that they’re doing it wrong, that they don’t know the struggles that came before them or the struggles they still face. Because I’ll know there is nothing to fear. That young women and young men will continue to search, and fight, for equality. That the world they inherit will be different from the world I inherited, but that I helped form the one they are in. I’ll hope they’ll listen to the stories of my peers, and I hope they’ll see them as stories of a world that was.

Because today, I am a young feminist. And I stand here with my feminist peers and look out a world which is ours for the taking. We know that the older feminists didn’t solve everything – there are hundreds of thousands of years of patriarchy to look back on. It can’t be fixed in an afternoon. We know that sometimes we feel invisible, but we also know that many older feminists still see us, still see our fight, and also still see our optimism, and they see us as peers. Just as we see them as both peers and role models.

My feminist heroes aren’t the women Churchill feared in Top Girls. Socialism and socialist values are central to my brand of feminism, as it is to my feminist role models. That was the brand of feminism I was raised in, it is the brand of feminism I believe most contemporary feminist dialogue is built around, and I hope the brand of feminism I can continue to work in the construction of.

Australia in 2012 is a pretty fantastic place to be 23. Yes, to be a feminist today is eternally heartbreaking. But it is heartbreaking in how far we have to go, not in how little we’ve come. And alongside that heartbreak, I think we’re eternally optimistic that it will all turn out okay. I wish  Fitzgerald could see that. I wish  Fitzgerald could celebrate that.

State Theatre Company of South Australia presents Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Catherine Fitzgerald, designed by Mary Moore, lighting design by Mark Pennington, composition by Catherine Oates. With Ulli Birvé, Eileen Darley, Antje Guenther, Sally Hidyard, Carissa Lee, Ksenja Logos and Lia Reutens. At the Dunstan Playhouse until September 8. More information and tickets.

Photos by Shane Reid