By Lily Stokes
Alice Birch’s text ‘Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again’ is not a conventional script. Dialogue isn’t attributed to character, and such characters are not defined by gender, role or even name. Theatrical moments are separated by titles such as ‘REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORLD’, distinguishing scenes which explore the disposition of wom*n in the workplace, in relationships and within families. A text such as this would be a nightmare for a director lacking vision or experience. It presents an almost overwhelming amount of freedom with perhaps the only consistent features being dialogue and the separation of scenes. Despite this, director Rosie Niven has done a superb job at realising Birch’s “theatrical assault” (as phrased by 2017 Malthouse Theatre production’s director Janice Muller) as part of this year’s Sydney Fringe Festival. The total demand for direction by this text makes ‘Revolt’ a process-driven piece that requires true emotional investment and vision. Niven has combined not only a brilliant array of performers, but also a wealth of designers to bring this otherwise indiscernible text to life. It captures the problematic rhetoric surrounding wom*n’s issues, and the urgent need for cultural change in modern Australia.
Birch’s script isn’t at all prescriptive and certainly doesn’t provide actors with context or motive to attribute to the dialogue they perform. To the credit of both Niven and the cast (Akala Newman, Alana Birtles, Chloe Brisk, Laura Anderson, Samantha Lush and Sophie Peppernell), each scene carried a feeling missing from the text. Those on stage created an emotional world behind every encounter, adding gravity to the bare-boned dialogue provided by the script. Casting female and non-binary persons in every role reclaimed the rhetoric that has confined wom*n well into the 21st century, reorienting the discourse to not one of blame, but rather one of action. Particularly moving moments included a soliloquy from Newman, including the iconic smashing of a watermelon. Her emotions were palpable and honest, with moments of sheer vulnerability growing into anger. Other highlights included comedic performances by Anderson and Lush in their more masculine roles. It bought a much-needed light to an otherwise dark work.
The lighting and sound design was also notably effective in giving the performance structure, with projections of Birch’s titles signifying a change of scene. As emotions reached an intense velocity towards the end of the performance, the names of wom*n murdered by men in the last 12 months were projected upon the space. This was particularly moving, and an absolute credit to both Niven and lighting designer Jasmin Borosovszky. The sound used throughout also added an industrial element to the piece, with screams of wom*n remixed into techno dance music. I was reminded of how women have been industrialised in the 21st century, and made into not only sexual but financial commodities. The addition of this poignant subtext is thanks to the work of Kipp Lee, the sound designer for this production.
The only criticism I have of this performance was that, on occasion, characterisation bled between scenes and thus confused some ongoing narratives (particularly one in reference to the abuse endured by a disabled girl). Other than this, the performances by all cast reflected their emotional investment in the themes of the piece, and their work in conjunction with Niven.
The piece ended on a bitter-sweet note when the anticipated ‘revolt’ was deemed futile by those on stage. Each character left the space defeated, walking through the audience and breaking the fourth wall. Indeed, the emotional toll of participating in the kind of dialogue explored in ‘Revolt’ is often exhausting for w*men. As phrased by Niven, “I am tired, and sad, and feel like I’m screaming into a void every time I try to talk about what’s happening to women in Australia”. With this in mind, I wondered if performing theatre like this was actually instilling change in misogynistic culture. Was it only a triggering echo chamber for those who already realise the gravity of wom*n’s issues through their own lived experience? I felt I knew the answer when walking out of Erskinville Town Hall. I was angry. I was exhausted. I was ready to fight back. That is why feminist theatre such as this should still be performed. It resurfaces feelings wom*n are taught to distrust or supress – the kind of feelings that can become a vehicle for revolt. However, if theatre such as Birch’s is designed to motivate change, I wonder when such a change will come.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.