No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Caryl Churchill

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

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?

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Interview: Geordie Brookman and The City

Already this year Adelaide theatre director Geordie Brookman has worked as assistant director on the Force Majeure / Sydney Theatre Company / Sydney Festival production Never Did Me Any Harm; directed the development and reading of Nicki Bloom’s 170 page, five hour long The Sun and the Other Stars for the National Play Festival in Melbourne; was the community coordinator at the Adelaide Festival club Barrio; and, in a “stupidly swift manner”, applied for and was announced as incumbent Artistic Director for the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

But before any of this came along, Geordie and wife Nicki Bloom had planned a year’s worth of work for their independent theatre company nowyesnow, for which they are co-artistic directors. I meet with Geordie twice in the last month to discuss directing nowyesnow’s first production for 2012, Martin Crimp’s The City.

Chatting on the second day of rehearsals in March and during bump-in to the theatre three days before the first preview in April gave me the opportunity to learn more about how a work is approached at the beginning and end of a rehearsal process, and (here’s hoping) gave me an opportunity to come to a clearer understanding of the work before seeing the piece and formulating my response to it (which you can now read here). The traditional approach is, of course, there is no connection between the artists and the critic before a work, as if conversations will some how “taint” the opinion (or, at worst, “subjectivity”) of a critic. But trying to stand completely outside of the theatrical culture in Adelaide is rather impossible, and I’m also interested in the place a critic occupies between the “audience” and the “artist” and how, by forming a clearer picture of intents and processes, the gaps on all sides (between audience and critic; between critic and artist; between audience and artist) can become smaller.

How this works in practice is something I’m still working out, but I’m glad to have artists who will help me in the process.

Geordie previously directed Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life for STCSA in 2008. “He’s always struck me,” he told me at our first meeting.

“Whenever I read something of his it always has an impact, and it doesn’t mean every word of his is perfect, but every one is so finely wrought and so deeply intelligent and so determined to simply be what it is. That beautiful thing in an artist: he doesn’t try to please anybody except himself, and he just allows the audience to come to him.”

Of The City, Geordie said the work is “a really quiet, really controlled, very very very intimate piece of chamber theatre that maintains that wonderful, dark, wicked sense of humour that he has, but makes no apologies for being deeply intelligent and highly cerebral.”

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Mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point.

-France, I, i, 240-242

“Talk about affirmative acting,” proclaims Matthew Westwood in The Australian, making full use of the pun quota straight off the bat. “Melbourne Theatre Company, ordered in 2009 to address a gender imbalance in its productions, is to make King Lear a woman.”

Well, by Jove, they’ve done it.  That’s the way to save gender inequality in Australian theatre.

This brief article about MTC’s 2012 programming makes mention of how the MTC’s governing body, the University of Melbourne, insisted the company employ an equal opportunity officer after employing just one female director “this year” – which should be 2010, as in 2011, the company saw five women direct on the mainstage.

In the just announced 2012 season, four of the eleven assigned directors (of 12 productions) are female.  MTC general manager Ann Tonks is quoted as saying this was “a much better outcome” than previous years.

If we’re looking long term, where from 2005-2011 the company has had a strike rate of 20% female directors to 80% male directors, yes, things are looking up.  Yet, as I’ve made mention, in 2011, MTC had five female directors and seven male directors.  Which is going to be at least as good as 2012, if not better.  Although with 2012 currently standing at 36%, this still leaves the MTC nine percentage points below 2011’s national average.

Curiously, there is no mention in the article on playwrights. Between 2005 and 2011, just 25% of MTC’s mainstage shows have been written by women, and this is again the case in 2012, where just three shows are written by women – the three texts premiering next year with the company, however, were all written by men.

One of the three plays with female playwrights is Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982), which is also being presented in a separate production by the State Theatre Company of South Australia next year.  With so much national dialogue of the voices being heard on our stages, I am worried (cringing, perhaps) that this show was selected (twice!) simply because it is the most obvious play about feminism.  And yet: it is thirty years old.  While both companies proclaim to us it is relevant, I can’t help but think has nothing new been written on the subject?  Must we continually defer our feminist dialogue back to the 80s?

I am unabashedly a fan of new writing: I think hearing modern voices on our stages, in that living artform that is theatre is important.  This isn’t to say we should never defer to those “classics”, but can we question why we do?  As a young feminist, can my generation be given permission to take hold of the issue and its representation at all?

But back to The Australian, and the MTC addressing a gender imbalance by casting Nevin as Lear.  From 2005 to 2011, there have been roles for 598 actors to tread the boards of MTC’s mainstage.  356 of these roles went to men; 242 to women.

One women in the role of one man will not tip these scales.

And besides all this, as director Rachel McDonald states in the article, casting Nevin as Lear isn’t so much “affirmative acting” as it is good casting and good marketing.  She’s one of the best actors in Australia: why shouldn’t she play what is appreciated as one of the greatest roles in the Western theatrical canon?

Having an equal opportunity officer is great.  It seems to be making a difference in the number of directors – although MTC still has a way to go.  It hasn’t seemed to affect playwrights at all, which is very disappointing.  It has nothing to do with Nevin and this role.

Gender equality in Australian theatre remains a pertinent and frustrating issue: one which, as 2011 rolls into 2012, shouldn’t be an issue at all.  Can we ask publications like The Australian to delve into these issues deeper, rather than conflating articles on a piece of casting news, some information about an upcoming season, and some titbits about inequality  thrown in for good measure?  I think we should.

RightAct10 Day One: Women and Theatre

RightAct10 kicked off last night at Format, and continues tonight at 7pm.  Last night opened with a moved reading of Seven Jewish Children, followed by a panel on women in theatre.

I found it a hard piece to watch, primarily because I don’t know a lot of the details about the Israel/Palestine debate, and so I was simultaneously trying to watch and take in the piece while sorting through my mind, trying to anchor the sections of the script to the moments of history they are referring to.

I’m not going to get into a discussion on the themes of the play on my blog, because, love it as I do, writing on the internet is not a safe place to explore my very confused and not fully formed issues on the conflict (to read me being political, scroll down and read about my feminist opinions).  I appreciate Churchill’s script for giving me something to think about, but personally I got more out of My Name Is Rachel Corrie at the Adelaide Fringe this year.  I hope I will be able to sort though my thoughts and write some more about it in the coming days.

The Woman and Theatre debate, in my eyes, really came to the forefront of debate amongst the Australian Theatre Community at the announcement of Company B’s 2010 season, where there was just one woman in a creative leadership (writer/director) role.   Since then there have been talks in Melbourne and Sydney, online and on the radio, and last night RightAct10 brought the debate to Adelaide.

Anne Thompson from The Eleventh Hour and Flinders Drama Centre, Catherine Fitzgerald, recently announced as the STCSA’s new Associate Director for 2011, and Jennifer Greer Holmes, executive producer from Vitalstatistix, made up the panel, and some great issues and opinions were raised and discussed (both among the panel and off the floor), but unfortunately in my eyes, at moments, the debate steered away from the roles and positions of women in theatre, and onto what type of feminism we should subscribe to.

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