A Response: The Roar | at Union House Theatre

October 12, 2015 § 1 Comment

The Roar is a piece of theatre that is worth writing about; it’s worth documenting, exploring and engaging with; it is important that it is not ignored or forgotten; it is worth repeating. It is a tour-de-force and a marvellous interrogation of the place of the female in the dramatic landscape.

Devised pieces can so often go awry—resulting in a jumbled series of images that may have made sense in the rehearsal room, or to those following the particular strains of logic, but have become indecipherable in performance to the audience—not so with The Roar. There is confidence here, clarity and an exciting exactness to the piece’s execution. Due in large part, I am sure, to the curator, Kathryn White—though the six devisors must not be forgotten either—who manages the process with impeccable attention to detail. The movements unfold at a splendid pace, balancing the urgency with which the performers carry their message with the grace and deft hand of skilled theatre makers, confident in their craft.

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There is fluidity here. There is company. There is friendship and solidarity. There is a resolute understanding that the state of play is wrong but there is also a sense that the way towards change is in flux; this is not the job or responsibility of any one individual, nor do these people pretend to speak for all people — how could they? There is no right way to go about rectifying the situation. There is no one solution, no easy fix, no one person to blame and, almost most importantly, no one should have to stay silent; there is inequality and it demands correction.

We begin with the body, where else? A pool of light, a woman splayed on the ground, face cast away, in front of a box, in front of the audience. The darkness edges outwards to the void. The body moves. It is chimerical. We cannot see the face and yet the body contorts itself and begins to walk, animal-like, around the black box. The time before we see the creature’s face draws out until we are frustrated by its unwillingness to reveal itself to us, to show us who/what it is, to look at us, to acknowledge our presence. The audience demands the creature’s singular objectification and yet, without a face, we cannot do so, it remains generalised.

Finally, it turns to us. Confronts us; stares into us. And unapologetically explains that, although she shouldn’t have to justify the work, that she has to justify the work is justification that the work is justified. And she’s right. A play about being a female, created by a team of females in a female-led devising process would surely be met with criticisms; whereas, she posits, when Arthur Miller writes a play about a man, and a man’s struggle, it is seen as universal and a masterpiece. Where are these masterpieces by women; that don’t also come with a caveat that they are by women and for women? This creature continues to dehumanise its body, and the physicality is striking. It is engrossing. It is cerebral and ethereal — and yet, very much of this world.

There is a strand of feminist theory that branches into post-humanism. It is explored beautifully in Imperator Furiosa, of Mad Max: Fury Road fame. Through the use of machines, women are freed of the shackles of their humanity — and, so too, of man. It is terrifying to think that this extreme is necessary for mere equality and yet it is almost here that The Roar begins. Tied loosely to this is the notion of becoming-animal, becoming-female. The body in front of us must deform and posture itself in such a way as to render itself inhuman. This is the length that these women are willing to go for their cause, and rightly so. The audience is destabilised and forms are being contested, the play can begin.

After a brief routine whereby the actresses riff on the ‘man in public space’ trope—they sprawl in the aisles excusing themselves as men do, then gender flip the comments to elucidate their absurdity—they all join the first actress on stage. What follows is movement. The lighting blows the space outwards and shadows dance across the black walls as the women run in circles. Then sharpen, focus: a snapshot, a scene plays out. They ranging from one line to several, and play out as the performers show what every day life is like for women, before continuing to run in circles. Issues of body hair, marriage, self-esteem, catcalling, and so on, are swiftly, openly and publically highlighted. Another scene. The running. And back to a vignette. We move on. As have women for years. From one scene to the next; from one example to another; the play sets the scene; we are contextualised.

Then the routines; in pools of light, four of the performers mime applying makeup and getting into specific garments, they ‘fix’ themselves on repeat. Over and over and over again they modify and change their selves; first looking one way, then another. Finally, two more performers bring them their desires and they all get into and apply clothing and makeup. We expect a woman to undergo these routines daily and in watching them one feels the labour, the time consuming nature of these Sisyphean tasks — at least he enjoyed his suffering.

We progress, to a strip tease. A provocative and entertaining performance ensues as the performer indulges the audience’s proclivity for sexualisation. It is difficult not to. The smile, the eyes, the movement of the body all invites us to participate. The music and the lighting ensnare us in complicity. Her costume seems out of place though, but we go along with it, for now. An overcoat, a hoodie—which is fiendishly and deliciously unzipped by an audience member—a pair of jeans, is all present, along with black underwear; nothing too fancy, nothing particularly drab. As she unhooks a strap from her shoulder suggestively, she changes tack; instead, she fishes for something inside her bra. Still coy, she begins to unravel a piece of parchment, the reveal: “This is what I was wearing when I was raped.”

She stands. The song plays. The song finishes. She stands.

Silence.

The space echoes with what has taken place.

She leaves.

Another performer arrives with a laptop. She sits and posts online, ‘why I need feminism’, or similar. The post appears on the wall behind her. The others arrive and they begin to post responses; ensconced in the dull laptop light, away from one another, the audience sees how secluded these people posting on the internet can be. Grotesque displays of misogyny are writ large across the back wall of the theatre as each actress reads them out, and presses send. Comedy in the face of ugliness seems the only response. All of the performers revel in the vulgarity of what has been written, and although it is unclear if the messages are real of fabricated, they all seem plausible. They are all words that we have heard before; tired excuses and exemptions, leading to the now infamous, “not all men”. The frustration is apparent. No one is singling out anyone—each message is anonymous—and yet, it must be tiresome to continually explain yourself to men, over and over again. Moreover, why don’t men just take women’s word on harassment? It’s baffling. And this incredulity manifests in these most energised and essential performances.

We’re at a sleepover. The actresses have: pillows, white t-shirts and a Zoo Weekly. They read—and I am paraphrasing here—Seven Rules for Pussy Domination (it’s less overtly graphic than that but it’s something to that effect). The banter and camaraderie in this movement is exquisite. The naturalness and effulgence of each individual electrifies the audience. We laugh and groan with them, we sigh and giggle, we are genuinely interested in their reactions to the rules of how it is that men can ‘own’ a woman’s pussy; presumably this is a metonym (or synecdoche) for owning the woman herself, though this is never really made explicit. Again, the rules are so, so believable, it is shameful to know that somewhere in the world people are really telling themselves and others that to control women you should: be mean to them, give them less than what they deserve, flirt with other women to make them jealous and other similarly disrespectful and revealing advice.

After all the seven secrets are revealed a pillow fight begins. A fantasy. Feathers flutter to the floor and are stirred up again by the females fighting; it looks fun. Then it turns to aggressions, they hit, hard, wild. One by one the women are knocked flat-out: until one remains.

She turns and talks to us frankly: about art, about her experience, about theatre and plays and casting and all the rest. Behind her plays footage from, I believe, 1997, when she cast herself as Michael Flatley and the entire cast of Lord of the Dance. As she lists her roles and puts them into categories—maternal mother, manic pixie dream girl, fucked-up whore—the seven-year-old version of her dances and dances on repeat. History collapses. The past and the present meet and play out at once. It is a surreal moment of theatre watching the same performer at two different moments in their life; one with all the possibility in the world, the naivety of youth, and the blissful ignorance of the reality that the older version now knows. She will never again have a role like the one she had to cast herself in. The years resonate in the space and you can hear the yearning cry in her voice, this is not right. This is injustice. No matter which way you cut it there is something wrong with the world. Somewhere between childhood and maturity we lose our innocence. This is a universal truth.

The other performers line up behind the woman giving the monologue and, in a moment of sublime solidarity, fall into line as members of the Lord of the Dance. The music begins and they, with the force of the millennia of oppression, kick and stamp together defiantly, having cast themselves as the stars of their own show because up until now no one else has. They are not passive, they are active; they are not waiting, they are doing; they are not asking, they are telling; they are in control and doing as they please and Goddamn they are going to river dance. And they do. And it is a triumph. And it is intensely human, universal and profound. And then, finally, what we have been waiting for, they roar. We hear them.

The audience is then invited onto the stage and celebrate with the performers. Some do, some leave; but the energy in the room is delightful all the same, despite many people in tears. The six performers, Scout Boxall, Jess Gonsalvez, Sarah Fitzgerald, Bonnie Leigh-Dodds, Rebecca Poynton, Charlotte Salusinszky all seemed overwhelmed, exhausted and exorcised by their experience.

Elsewhere: the lighting enhanced the mood of the piece and provided a fluid gel to hold the scenes together, filling the empty black box theatre with light and shadows; a photomontage explored ‘the body’; a race was run whereby the women competed against each other and ultimately got nowhere; and the music tied the themes together in an entertaining and sometimes salacious way.

The Roar is a piece that speaks right to the heart of modern day practices and attitudes towards gender; however, there is a strong current of humanity’s desire to be treated with respect. This is a piece by women, about women, for women but it is also so much more. This is some of the best and most affective theatre in Melbourne.

CAST & CREATIVES

Scout Boxall
Jess Gonsalvez
Sarah Fitzgerald
Bonnie Leigh-Dodds
Rebecca Poynton
Charlotte Salusinszky

PRODUCTION TEAM

Curator: Kathryn White
Dramaturg: Jess Gonsalvez
Producer/Production Manager: Emma Conley
Associate Producer: Josiah Lulham
Stage Manager: Bella Mackey
Lighting Designer: Jai Leeworthy
Lighting Operator: Sarah Pemberton
Sound Designer/Operator: Ruby Lulham
Front of House Manager: Mindi Suter

Produced by Until Monstrous

Date: 8 October – 10 October 2015
Time: 7.30pm, Thursday – Saturday
Venue: The Guild Theatre, Level 1, Union House, The University of Melbourne

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