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Review: Not all Dictators at La Mama Courthouse

Review by Naomi Cardwell.

A playwright, a war correspondent, and a political commentator walk into a bar.

…Well, not quite, but you get the idea. Not All Dictators is a witches’ brew of material by Australian Tiffany Barton, Ukranian Natali Blok and British writer and political pundit Kate Smurthwaite. The trio borrow Shakespeare’s three witches of Macbeth to give voice to women survivors of war as they plot their blood-soaked revenge on despotic dictator MacPutin. While the seams do show, it’s all part of the confronting, chaotic and glorious mishmash. Set to a throbbing soundtrack of Peaches, Death Pill and Pussy Riot, the flavour of Not All Dictators is rage: glorious, bloody, burn-it-all-to-the-ground, vengeful, feminist rage.

Content warnings regarding references to acts of sexual violence and references to violence against children should be heeded seriously. We don’t see it happen on stage, but we’re immersed in the dudgeon of the aftermath for the entirity of this play. The war portions, supplied by acclaimed Ukranian playwright Natali Blok, are brutally written and extremely challenging material. Director Helen Doig’s formidable horror chops shine through, as she crafts suggestion and allusion into a truly terrifying spectacle on the Greek tragedian scale without ever actually showing specifics.

The sheer haemorrhaging glut of storylines and collaged-together quotations is overwhelming. There’s enough material here for three plays, and it often feels as though they’re all shouting at once. As the witches cackle and plot, the script disgorges Shakespeare and Euripides in chunks alongside testimonials from women in war-torn Ukraine. Much-needed breaks of comic relief are delivered in drag as Scott Morrison, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin shake it to Shaun Roberts’ anthemic original music. A staggering Beckettian vignette - which deserves to become a work in its own right - follows a lonely, starving woman (Melina Wylie at her formidable best) sheltering with only a sock puppet for company. There’s just so much, though. Rather than letting too many cooks spoil the broth, the best way through is to embrace the chaos, call it aggressively postmodern, and follow the threads you can keep a hold of.

Victoria Haslam’s performance as Hecate is utterly unmissable. She is the integral lightning-rod for the play’s torrential material, reconciling and galvanising the impossible energy with her furious physicality and chilling facial expressions. As Morgan, Melina Wylie turns her background in burlesque to cunningly alternate between hero and hag, hamming up her blacked-out teeth and bathing her face in blood. Pru Daniel as twisted ingénue Jezabel is wickedly sinister, hardening her skipping and giggling into an arresting solo during a choral hymn which leaves the audience in stunned silence.

Visually, Not All Dictators is an outstanding achievement. Strips of giant, bloodied bandages hang from the ceiling, shuddering to the touch as though they’re full of ghosts. Onto these, multimedia artist Porl Phillips projects a Ukranian flag which stutters against electrostatic interference and gives way to videos of collaged war scenes which tantalisingly flicker against the gaping strips of darkness in between. The bandages and gigantic projections stretch La Mama’s Courthouse vertically into cathedral-like proportions and dwarf the actors underneath in a salient comment about the annihilating scale of war and patriarchy against us tiny human beings.

The visual spectacle would benefit, however, from re-balancing the physical punishment. The script’s preoccupation with the abjected female body runs the risk of generating dangerously recursive side effects: strong references to rape are crucial to the piece, both as the lived experience of its characters and as a metaphor for Russia’s violent incursion into Ukraine. But the opening scene’s blokey comedy about cunnilingus and caricature of menstrual bleeding de-value the female bodies on the stage, undercutting the horror when we later see them broken.

Furthermore, despite Not All Dictators’ impressive verbal violence against men, all their physical punishment is once-removed: the witches stab a Putin-styled voodoo doll and burst some penis-balloons; there’s also the suggestion of a bloody ending but very little payoff. By the end, all the gratuitous, flowing blood on stage is still women’s blood. Perhaps it’s just that the rage and blistering energy of Not All Dictators is contagious, but this revenge play could do with a little more revenge to even up the score.

Brought to La Mama by Tiffany Barton’s aptly named Creative Collaborations, Not All Dictators is a must-see showcase of the toil and troubles of a superbly talented and ferociously passionate cast and crew.

Image Supplied


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