Loaded: A Double Bill of New Plays, Studio Underground, Black Swan State Theatre Company, January 14th-February 7th, 2016. 8pm, tickets $30.58-$53.01 via Ticketek.
‘Girl Shut Your Mouth’, written by Gita Bezard, directed by Jeffery Jay Fowler
‘Tonsils and Tweezers’, written and directed by Will O’Mahony
A week before the official start of the Fringe World on 21st January, Black Swan State Theatre Company (BSSTC) opened their contribution to this annual festival with their LAB production of Loaded. The double bill of new plays, featuring Girl Shut Your Mouth and Tonsils and Tweezers, is the result of recent initiatives by the company to foster young and emerging talent across all areas of theatre. The most recent, the Bridging Company, enables eight recent Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts graduates to debut with BSSTC, whilst the Emerging Artists and Emerging Writers programmes are more established. These initiatives aim to keep talented and trained young theatre artists in WA; in this, they are perhaps reflections of an ongoing anxiety felt within the industry as to its relevance in this state. Several arts organisations have closed over the past few years, including many theatre companies, and the once vibrant Perth Theatre Company seems increasingly missing in action.
So it’s not surprising that Loaded reflects this anxiety by choosing two plays that are courting controversy in an attempt to be relevant. With such a young group of artists, it is also to be expected that the issues and settings of these works will reflect their own concerns and obsessions, even though the audience on the opening night were, on the whole, much older. Although the programme makes no mention of Fringe World and the company’s website refers to it in on a single line, associating with this growing venture will probably attract the twenty-something audience the shows are aimed at. Both stories are about young people pushed to extremes, and consequently believing violence, either to themselves or others, is the only answer to their problems. They refer to school shootings, violence against women in war torn countries and domestic violence closer to home.
This double bill is thus titled Loaded for good reason. Both plays feature a loaded gun, and both are loaded with contemporary cultural references. Gita Bezard’s Girl Shut Your Mouth creates a familiar, yet disorientating world. Four ‘16-year-old girls’ (programme, 4) are confined within a large rectangular frame, dressed as we might expect young women in a Western culture to be, with short skirts and sleeveless tops. Their bodies are very much on display. Their obsessions with boys and how they look are familiar, even if somewhat stereotypically portrayed. This is a hyper-feminised space of prettiness and pink, and the male gaze is privileged in the opening image as the young women stand in their underwear. It does not take us long to realise that their reality is not ours. They live in a world where women are punished for not conforming to restrictions on their movements and behaviour. Sexual violence and fear of death are tools of oppression imposed by faceless men. In their distorted reality, they decided to turn these tools into their means of escape.
Katie, a typical ‘mean girl’ if ever there was one, is beautiful and feisty, but she is about to leave her friends. During an attack on her school she was shot in the head and now believes she will be accepted into another country as a refugee, where they will welcome her with open arms. She is looking forward to the ‘minty limey drinks’ she will have in abundance and the advantages her new life will bring her. Grace and Mia are happy for her, but wish that they could leave too. It is this desperation that leads to their plan to shoot themselves as a means of escape. The only voice of dissent is Darcy. She has been attacked with acid in the past and bears the scars on her back. Darcy’s pleading is dismissed as cowardice, and Grace and Mia are undeterred.
The obvious allusion to the shooting in the head of Malala Yousafzai creates somewhat of a dilemma for Bezard. This is emphasised in the depiction of these young women: they have no allies in the wider world, lack family structures and religious or political ideologies to guide them. They are isolated, both physically on stage, and emotionally within the narrative. The only ‘enemy’ of these women are domineering men who inhabit the outside spaces. Men who feel entitled to shoot them on sight after dark, to sexually molest and rape them, to verbally, emotionally and physically abuse them. So, on one hand, Bezard is highlighting their circumstances as the problem for them, similar to those experienced by Malala in Pakistan. On the other hand, Bezard is trying to suggest that these women desire ‘the idea of a feminist future’ (programme, 4), though they lack the means to achieve it. But their desire for change is essentially individualistic and self-centred whereas Malala’s was rooted in concern for her wider community. To reference Malala has immediate appeal to a benevolent-feeling audience, but it fails to acknowledge her prior advocacy and activism for girls’ education—the very reason she was attacked. Malala was trying to change the world she lived in and she is still trying to help improve the lives of many other women and girls through her work. Unlike Malala, these young women are without any positive agency and are passive. They only see an imagined other place of peace, opportunity and harmony as their escape. They can only have violence committed against them, either by men or by themselves. One might argue that depicting violence against women on stage is not enough, even with a few jokes thrown in. So Darcy becomes the lone voice against this nihilism. She refuses to leave because she wants to stay in the hope that things will get better, that this situation will not last.
That is not to say that the play is not engaging or well performed. In particular, Shalom Brune-Franklin brings a complexity to Grace that highlights all the nuances and contradictions of her situation. This is partly due to the character development within the narrative, as Grace comes up with the plan to self-harm as a means of escape. Jessica Paterson’s Katie is less developed. Her quest is set out at the beginning of the play and the simple question is whether or not she will achieve it. Nonetheless, Paterson plays teenage-swagger-trying-to-hide-insecurity to good effect. Stephanie Panozzo’s Mia is the most surprising of the characters. She begins more as a sidekick to Katie but Panozzo is heart-wrenching when she has to subject herself to abuse in order to achieve her ends. Brittany Morel brings emotional nuance to the outsider Darcy as she courageously provides her opposing views. Representing the many faceless, nameless women who want to stay in order to be change agents in their own country, Darcy’s own story of disfigurement is never told. Perhaps Bezard saw Darcy as a counter to a Western, romanticised view of Malala—in the end she becomes more a plot device than a fully wrought individual. Bezard does have a talent for realistic dialogue, and she can bring heightened language to some impressive monologues. Grace in particular has some great lines: ‘It’s weird to think that people who’ve never met us can hate us so much’. Whilst this is on the surface about the men who would casually kill them, it resonates later when Darcy tells Katie her imagined salvation is not real, and that on arrival she will be held in detention and treated harshly. Australia’s treatment of and attitudes towards refugees is placed front and centre.
Will O’Mahony’s self-directed Tonsils and Tweezers displays a more sophisticated grasp of the potential of theatre to tell story than Girl Shut Your Mouth, but it lacks some of the former’s intensity. It interweaves several narratives and engages with metaphors and imagery. Tonsil and Tweezers draws on contemporary mass shootings for its narrative drive, but places it firmly in the world of the potential shooter. As the audience took their seats after the interval a young man in boxer shorts greets us as he vacuums the stage area. He is Tonsils, both a narrator and a character within the play, played with likeable good-humour by Lincoln Vickery. O’Mahony uses a form of ‘alienation’, the Verfremdungseffekt employed by Bertolt Brecht, to make the audience aware that they are watching a play and to combat any emotional investment in the characters. This is achieved through interjections from Tonsils, indicating what is coming up in the next few minutes, and in slipping from fourth wall drama to story telling and to quotations from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These techniques are quite familiar to audiences today, and will not have the shocking effect they had in the past. Neither are they underpinned by a political philosophy as Brecht employed so effectively, but appear to be more a stylistic choice.
Hoa Xuande is impressive as the troubled Tweezers, Tonsils’ childhood friend. He is able to seamlessly change mood from friendly openness to sinister threat, and still make an audience care about him. Even his misanthropic diatribes are forgiven because we see he has been broken by life. This is amplified when Tweezers meets Max, his former school bully. Max (a sensitive Adam Sollis) describes himself as a ‘property developer’, but in reality he just find sites to build new outlets for a fast-food restaurant chain. Even this leaves Tweezers, an office cleaner, feeling lonely and inadequate. Our emotional engagement with Tweezers is disrupted several times by the story of the boy with the phantom gun, told by Tonsils and Beth (a beautifully comedic Megan Wilding), along with excerpts from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as Max tries to learn his lines for a local production. The phantom gun story is a thinly veiled allusion to what is to come, but the Macbeth quotes are more interesting. Juxtaposed against Macbeth’s desire for power and victory we see Tweezers disaffection with life. Like Macbeth, this disempowered young man starting out in adulthood sees violence as the only way forward. And as with Girl Shut Your Mouth, violence becomes central as he decides to ‘shoot up their high school reunion’ (programme, 5).
Parallel to this narrative, there is the question of the friendship between Tonsils and Tweezers. In a creative twist, O’Mahony alludes to astrophysics, and binary stars: celestial objects with gravitationally bound orbits. We understand that there is a force of nature between these two school friends, and at some point this interaction will shift and cause one of them to implode. As a metaphor, this is somewhat effective, despite it not being particularly anchored in the narrative. Nick Payne’s play, Constellations (2012), for example, is intricately constructed around a scientific idea both metaphorically and performatively. In Tonsils and Tweezers the astrophysical metaphor is expressed more through exposition than performativity and so feels somewhat detached. We are promised a narrative akin to supernova, a dying star exploding in the night sky, but this is not enacted. Nonetheless, as the past friendship and its disruption between these two young men are explored, Tweezers’ motives for violence are revealed. But is this a justifiable excuse for his wish to harm innocent people at a school reunion? And are we being asked to understand him? O’Mahony cleverly avoids us having to answer these disturbing questions with a somewhat redemptive ending.
Both of these two plays are flirting with violence in an attempt to engage in contemporary issues, and also to be intentionally provocative. Jeffrey Jay Fowler, the director of Girl Shut Your Mouth, stated as much in a recent Radio National Breakfast interview: “I’m really proud to say we’ve already received complaints before the season has opened… that the title of the show… is aggressive to towards women.” (Radio National, 19/1/2016) Similarly, recent movies—The Revenant (2015) and The Hateful Eight (2015) among others—have been both criticised and acclaimed for excessive violence, male machismo and for their treatment of women. It is a dangerous field to play in and, as emerging playwrights, Bezard and O’Mahony could be forgiven for not demonstrating a more nuanced awareness of the socio-political and gendered underpinnings of their work. But both of these plays have been included in Playwriting Australia workshops and undergone extensive creative development, and one would have hoped that their dramaturges and mentors would have encouraged a sophisticated exploration of the issues. The exploitation of violence for the sake of controversy (and presumably to compete with the tide of publicity from the hundreds of other Fringe shows) is one that requires greater justification than these productions perhaps provide.
Both of these emerging writers have the talent to succeed as they engage an audience through imaginative story, effective dialogue, and compelling characters, and the WA theatre sector should be congratulated for fostering their careers. The danger is that with Girl Shut Your Mouth, the violence is seen as exploitative; with Tonsils and Tweezers, as justifiable. Whilst controversy is nothing new in the world of theatrical promotion as productions strive to compete with electronic devices and the Internet for our attention, that provocation still needs to deliver a meaningful experience. Controversy for its own sake is never satisfying for an audience.
Loaded Programme, Perth: Black Swan Theatre Company, 2016.
Nick Payne. Constellations. London: Faber and Faber, 2012.
“Girl, Shut Your Mouth: New Australian Play Inspired by Stories of Violence against Women.” Radio National. Web, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/girl,-shut-your-mouth:-new-play-inspired/7097522, 22 Jan. 2016.
Vivienne Glance is an academic, professional theatre artist and creative writer. She holds a BSc (Hons) from Imperial College, London, and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia (UWA). Her interests are the intersection of science and culture, particularly aspects of science in performance. Vivienne is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at UWA.