By Carly Fisher
It’s not too often that a show leaves me as divided as Darlinghurst’s latest production, I’m With Her did. On the one hand, I love what the show stands for and the work put in by the theatre company and the team involved in the creation of this production is to be commended – we needed these stories of supreme female achievement recorded and we are richer for their documenting of these incredible stories. On the other hand, the execution of the production was just not up to the standard of what I have come to expect from the Darlinghurst Theatre Company and as such, it was a jarring theatrical experience for me.
Verbatim theatre is a hard form to achieve theatrically and can either really enthuse the audience with first hand recounts and oral testimony, calling on, arguably, a deeper sense of empathy or awareness from audiences who recognise that these are not created stories of characters but true recollections. Alternatively, verbatim can be lengthy, verbose and for many audiences a little lifeless in delivery as there proves less room for interaction between stories. This production sadly fell plague to the latter with the women on stage barely interacting with one another’s stories in anything more than a laugh or sentimental nod. Quite frankly, it made for a long performance.
Whilst some of the actors truly took this performance style in their stride, namely Emily Havea who was simply fabulous, others seemed to struggle a bit more to find their comfort in this dialogue, relying on scripts and prompters. All five are such strong actors, evident in their delivery of lines and audience engagement, but this show didn’t allow all five to shine equally.
Focusing on the script - curated and lead written by director Victoria Midwinter Pitt, the actual words were powerful, important and impactful. Midwinter Pitt, along with the team of writers involved in the project, have done so much good with the generous stories given to them by the women involved and each should feel immensely proud of their contribution to a new female led theatrical canon.
My only critique of this would have to be scale and with this comment I would like to preface what an ambitious project I feel that these writers undertook. To represent the experience of Australian women is a massive task – there is no one Australian woman and there is no single experience. As such, choosing 9 stories to represent female Aussie life is, frankly, bold. I wish Julia Guillard’s story had been given a bit more air time – she was after all the first female PM of our country, though what was included was great (going into interval with this too gave me such a buzz – I was having a great time till that point). I wish that the Trans female experience had been included, or the migrant, or the Asian-Australian. I wish we had heard from a second First Nation Australian woman. I wish that women in other fields – perhaps the Arts (I mean, we are talking about the Me Too movement after all and we all know how prevalent that has been to the Arts world) or Banking where we know how much of a ‘Boys Club’ still exists, etc, had been featured. I know that there is only so much that can be included in one show – perhaps we are already calling for a sequel – but there was not a great enough representation of diversity across these stories for it to be able to reflect “us all.” Still, I completely appreciate time limits and acknowledge that as it was it was too long (as it was a number of people around me didn’t return after interval) so I can respect the complexity of the decision of whose story to include would have been grueling.
When I boil it all down, my ultimate criticism for the show is not to do so much with the script but simply with the presentation. It felt lazy. Scripts were being used (and obviously), projections when used were quite okay but were used so inconsistently that we spent the majority of the lengthy production looking at a plain white wall with plain white chairs in front of it and actors wearing plain white clothes on said chairs. At that point, even just leaving the beautiful existing backdrop of the Eternity Theatre exposed would have been more interesting visually and less frustrating a reminder of how inconsistently the tech elements were being used. The lighting by Kelsey Lee was strong in its emotive power and well timed and was by far the strongest design element of the production. This script had so much to offer and I felt that the production was very rushed in its construction. Yes, these stories need to be heard with a pressing urgency that may make you rush something like this to the stage but keeping it to open the 2020 season wouldn’t have changed anything except the quality of this production.
In summary, the script had all the potential and so much important content to be shared and I am so grateful as a woman in the Arts that Darlinghurst has used their platform as theatre makers to bring a spotlight on successful, impressive and inspirational Australian women. I just wish the production had lived up to it.
Every fiber of my being wanted this to be a resounding success because of how much I loved the concept and how much the woman in me wanted to support this. And I do. I thought the script was a triumph but the production let it down. I wanted this to be great, I wanted to rave, I wanted to tell you that it was the most important piece of theatre to go and get a ticket to right now and to take everyone you know. I really wanted that to be the case. But unfortunately, I don’t think many non theatre goers will enjoy this production and as a consequence I don’t think that they’ll adequately listen to the message. And that I think is a real shame. So much potential lost to execution.
Image Credit: Robert Catto
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.