Monday, 27 August 2012

Review: 'Top Girls'

The State Theatre Company of South Australia, The Dunstan Playhouse, 17 August - 8 September 2012. Written by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Catherine Fitzgerald.

I wonder what Caryl Churchill makes of the fact that two Australian state theatre companies are producing her 1982 play Top Girls this year? Perhaps she doesn’t know anything about it, or is just grateful for the royalties. Or perhaps, like me, she is just a little bit confused.
            Whatever director Catherine Fitzgerald says about the play’s enduring relevancy (and she is, I think, at least partly right to argue this case in light of today’s fundamentalist capitalism) Top Girls is a play wedded to its time. It’s so much about the 1980s that you don’t even need to, as Fitzgerald has done in her production for the State Theatre Company of SA, put everyone in shoulderpads and assail the audience with bad synth-pop at every opportunity. Make no mistake, this is a play about BritainEngland – in 1982: Thatcher, monetarism, corporate culture. It is also intimately concerned, as the third and strongest act makes clear, with issues of class, and their apparent negation in Thatcher’s social Darwinist world.
            Why, then, put such a play on in Australia, 30 years after it was written? I don’t know the answer to this question. Fitzgerald’s program notes, written I presume as a sort of pre-emptive strike against criticisms of irrelevancy, make for worthy reading but provide no real answers. It’s a bad sign, in any case, when the production of a 30-year old play has to be justified by its director, as though it were applying for a job.
            The truth is, I suspect, Top Girls was chosen to feature in both STCSA’s and Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2012 seasons because a lot has been said and written in recent years about the gender imbalance in Australian theatre. An Australia Council report emerged in April, Women in Theatre, which confirmed what everybody knew already – women are grossly underrepresented in Australian theatre. Top Girls makes for an obvious choice of play to attempt a redressing of this inequality because it is by probably the most well-known and influential female playwright of modern times and features an all-woman cast. Throw in (naturally) a female director, and there you have it: a play by a woman, performed by women, directed by a woman. I don’t think I’m being too cynical. I think, actually, the selection of Top Girls by STCSA and MTC is far more cynical, not only because it smacks of ‘so there’-ism but because it’s a lazy choice which has far less to say about the lives of women living now than Fitzgerald seems to think.
            The play opens surreally, with a dreamlike sequence in which six women from various historical epochs have dinner at an upmarket restaurant. One of them is the booze-soaked Marlene (Ulli Birve), of the Top Girls employment agency. She is the only character who appears throughout the play. She is joined for dinner by Isabella Bird (Eileen Darley), a Victorian traveller, Lady Nijo (Lia Reutens), a Japanese Emperor’s courtesan, Dull Gret (Sally Hildyard), a woman from Brueghel’s painting Dulle Griet, Pope Joan (Antje Guenther) who, disguised as a man, was thought to have been Pope between 854 – 856 BC, and Patient Griselda (Ksenja Logos), of Canterbury Tales fame. As the wine flows and courses come and go, the women discuss their lives, loves and disappointments, via Churchill’s trademark overlapping dialogue.
All the performances here are strong, but the dinner is marred by some curious directorial flourishes; Isabella arrives on an enormous, silly tricycle, Dull Gret from a hole in the floor which represents a cartoon version of hell replete with belching smoke and incessant screaming, and Pope Joan via the air on a sort of papal hovercraft as a burst of Monty Python and the Holy Grail-ish mock-religious sound fills the theatre. Fitzgerald clearly doesn’t have much faith in the ability of Churchill’s first act to hold the audience’s attention. I thought, too, that the use of slavishly correct accents was unnecessary, adding a further, obfuscating layer of theatricality to proceedings. It is enough (possibly more than enough, given that Lady Nijo was performed in the play’s premiere by Lindsay Duncan) that the characters are differentiated by their appearances.
The second act sees the action transfer to the Top Girls employment agency, represented in Mary Moore’s commendably minimalist set design by a handful of desks, office chairs and a water cooler. It is also here, however, that the biggest failing of the show’s design becomes overwhelmingly clear – a literal glass ceiling which hovers over the action, breaking apart and coming together again at different points during the action. It’s an inanely obvious conceit and the fact that it moves rather shoddily only highlights the daftness of its inclusion.
The scenes set in the employment agency are undoubtedly the least interesting of the play and the audience’s slackening attention was palpable during the perilously long time to the interval (close to two hours). The story of children Angie (Guenther) and Kit (Carissa Lee), introduced during the second scene of act two, brought, I think, many of us back; I for one was transfixed by their volatile backyard antics, smartly telescoped to one small part of the stage. It is, ultimately, Angie’s story which becomes the most significant of Top Girls. She represents the generation – of women, yes, but of men too – who are set to be left behind by Thatcher’s brave new world. The two moments that stood out in my mind after the play both involved her, the first in which she has fallen asleep in a chair at the employment agency and Marlene, watching her, chillingly observes: ‘She’s not going to make it.’ The second occurs at the end of the play, when Marlene, in an intriguing role reversal, is going to sleep on the couch at her sister’s house when Angie tears into the room, having been woken by a nightmare. Just before the lights fade, she says one word: ‘Frightening.’ In this single word, Churchill captured her prognosis for 1980s England.
She was right, of course, to be fearful of everything that the Thatcher/Reagan axis represented. Fitzgerald is also right to be fearful of the legacy of that axis which continues to be felt today, and will no doubt redouble its effect in this country should a Liberal government come to power next year which looks increasingly likely. I don’t know that Top Girls can tell us very much about this, and I don’t know that this production can tell us very much about Top Girls. ‘Frightening’, however, it is.                                     

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