Review: The Exquisite Corpse Shall Drink the New Wine at La Mama

Review by Tash Bradshaw


In a play filled with wit, humour and endless surprises, Faye Bendrups impeccably captures the experiences of remarkable women, silenced and suppressed by gender norms and societal expectations.


This Melbourne show is full of surprises: there is poetry, original music some killer dance moves, a powerful finishing protest, even a sing-along! And all at the La Mama theatre, a delightful venue for an encapsulating show.


The play centres on three women, who tell the interwoven stories of incredible artistic women in a surrealist mash-up. The women whose stories are told are all creatives who are outshone by their male partners. One of the core stories follows Mary Moffat, the wife of explorer David Livingstone. Her fluency in several local languages and experience living in remote outposts helped the couple stay alive, but whose name is most recognisable today? We also hear the story of Clara Schuman, a piano prodigy and composer whose career was curtailed by her caring responsibilities for her sick husband and eight children, and of Camille Claudel, a talented sculptor who for much of her life was demoted to the position of muse, and having credit for her work taken from her.


But this is just a few, with other women’s stories also cleverly woven in. While the focus is on historical stories of creative couples, they brilliantly capture the experiences of women across all times and passions. The play is exceptionally well-researched, with most of the script quoting verbatim from diaries, interviews and other public records from these women.


The 3-piece band, featuring an accordion, double bass and viola, masterfully reflect the mood of the story. The show features nine original music numbers, largely composed by Faye Bendrups. It is during the songs that the three women really shine, with outstanding singing performances all the while providing the audience comic relief with their killer dance moves and evocative facial expressions. The audience loved every second of it, laughing and singing along.


Also featured is a man in a horse head. Supposedly plagued by syphilis, his role is largely to ramble madly and demand things of the women, who mostly ignore him, and to occasionally join in with some of his own killer dance moves. Until the end, that is, when he is electrocuted, hypnotised, and wrapped in kitchen roll. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, even though the women said I shouldn’t: he was a token of the way men have silenced, censored and objectified women for years.


The play could be set in a soon-to-open salon (horse-head salon), or perhaps an asylum? It’s hard to tell, which is just another surrealist element of the dream-like play. The women are dressed in all white, with veils. The band and ‘horse head’ are also dressed in all-white, giving off a cultish feel that added to the atmosphere of blurred reality. The women wore bright pink make-up, accentuating their intense facial expressions.


If you’re wondering about the title, the play has a running thematic reference to the game Exquisite Corpse, which was created by French Surrealists around 80 years ago. The first player writes down a word, and hides it by folding the paper. The second player adds a word, the third another, and so on. Then the paper is unfolded and words read out. The game was named after the Surrealists favourite sentence created in this way: “The exquisite corpse drinks the new wine”. And the reference runs throughout the play, drinking wines ranging from a “earthy single malt” to one with a “complex, ethereal aroma”.


Overall, the cast and audience all seemed to be having a great time. Though the message was perhaps a little overstated in the end, misplacing some of the earlier subtleties, it was a brilliant and witty way to highlight how women’s talents have been suppressed, and just how much they have achieved in spite of this.


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