Review by Lucy Lucas
Pillow Fight is a show I have been needing to see for a long time, a play I have been waiting for, yearning for, and I didn’t even know it. So much of the conversation around consent is black and white, and with good reason – no means no. Reckoning with this notion has driven a crucial social shift in the past few years and yet in practice, in real life, that certainty bears little resemblance to the complexity of human relationships and especially sexual interactions. By beginning to delve into the murky area between moral absolutes and subjective human experience and memory Pillow Fight takes a brave and sorely needed first step.
It has deep thematic and cultural links to the recent one-woman production Prima Facie (an Australian play, broadcast locally as an NT Live production this year and coming to the MTC stage in 2023 – google it, it’s great!), demonstrating that theatre, as ever, is at the forefront of evolving social discussions. Both plays feature characters with a strong grasp of legal terminology and operations. In Prima Facie we meet Tess, an experienced barrister, in Pillow Fight its Rob and Hen, two law students in the midst of their studies. With the clash between the black/white-guilty/not guilty landscape of the legal system and the messy, emotional worlds of real human beings at the centre of these productions this choice makes sense, though it will be exciting to see how this conversation evolves to include those outside of elite academic and professional environments. Prima Facie follows Tess as she goes from cross-examining young women to being on the stand herself, viscerally demonstrating the ineffective nature of traditional legal process when it comes to experiences of trauma and abuse. Pillow Fight follows a similar story initially but takes a step back after the fact, staging and re-staging the memories of Hen and Rob as their memories and opinions begin to shift and they grapple for control over their own truth. There just isn’t time to go into all the beautifully constructed details of the show; the exquisitely simple motif of passing the baton (balloon) of control back and forth, the understated but powerful movement sequences, the excellent use of basic rostra and minimal props…let me just say writer Laura Lethlean and director Katie Cawthorne are a powerhouse duo and all elements of this production are masterfully executed.
Performers Monique Warren and Cameron Grant are wonderful. The patient pacing of the first half allows us to watch a genuine relationship evolving between them, the truth of the events carefully and delicately laid out for us to witness. It is challenging to watch them de-construct the night, I found myself wishing I could pause the action and intervene. In the moments prior to sex, I saw Hen’s discomfort; I saw her hesitation. So, when this is later questioned, I wanted to speak up, to bear witness. But that’s the point, in these situations there is never a crowd of objective and passive witnesses. The moment has passed, it now belongs to memory and memory is fair game. And are we really objective witnesses? Do I, as a woman, watch for those moments of uncertainty more closely? Am I more finely attuned to a grimace, a tension in the shoulders, an unfinished sentence? As the play moves forward there is a definite sense of losing the essential truth of the moment, of moving further and further away from the detail of the night. Whilst this is clearly intentional, I felt the final scenes somewhat floundered in their lack of any certainty whatsoever. In demonstrating just how blurred the lines can be I felt the play missed an opportunity to give weight to a couple of its stronger points, even if these had been conflicting. I didn’t want a solution, but I was left feeling the play wasn’t really sure where it wanted to leave us, it became overwhelmed by its own thesis – that this is a hard situation in which to be clear on anything.
I’m devastated I can’t shout out the design creatives by name (looking at you Melbourne Fringe and Gasworks’ websites), but all involved deserve some hearty praise. Unless this was also done by Cawthorne and Lethlean in which case is there anything these women can’t do? The set design was simple and elegant – a curtain of white party streamers hanging metres above the stage – reminiscent of both bedroom venetian blinds and tentacled, consuming sea-monsters. Though unfortunately affected by sound-bleed from Gasworks’ larger stage next-door the pulsating throbs of the bass-centred soundscape appropriately bridged the gap between the play’s two worlds: the ominous, blurred realm of memory and the trippy intensity of those endless early-twenties nights. The lighting design was somehow both dynamic and dreamy, another excellent example of tasteful restraint from this creative team.
At the heart of both Pillow Fight and Prima Facie are a lack of concrete answers. We know there is a problem in the way we talk about consent, communication, pleasure, and power. What do we do with this knowledge now we have it? What is the point of justice when a violation has already occurred? What even is justice in this context? This is the wonderful magic of theatre; I left that Gasworks last night searching for answers, for ways to puzzle this out so that the Hen and Marks’ of the world do not find themselves in the situation played out on stage. Pillow Fight is not afraid to wade into the ugly and blurry waters that swirl around the topic of consent and for that reason it is essential viewing.