Female of the Species ~ theatre notes

Friday, September 01, 2006

Female of the Species

The Female of the Species by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Patrick Nolan. Designed by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Matt Scott, composer David Chesworth. With Michael Carman, Roz Hammond, Peter Houghton, Sue Ingleton, Bert Labonte and Bojana Novakovic. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Victorian Arts Centre Playhouse, until September 30

In the mutual loathing stakes, Joanna Murray-Smith and I, who are exact contemporaries, go back a long way. For around 15 years, she has considered me a bitch and I have thought her a dill. I hated her plays, she hated my criticism. She called herself post-feminist and berated feminism for her problems: I called myself a feminist and thought her a privileged whinger. Even our hair colour expresses our disagreements: she's blonde, I'm brunette.

Once, at the old Playbox Theatre, we sat directly opposite each other at lunch and snubbed each other as only women can. Face to face for more than an hour, we spoke not one word to each other. Not even a gritted greeting.

So I suppose all my friends will be rushing over to take my temperature. This week I went to see Murray-Smith's most recent play, The Female of the Species, and didn't come out breathing fire or wanting to kill. Did my brush with death last week make me a wiser, kinder person? Or have all these drugs numbed my aesthetic perceptions?

Sadly for the moralists, I don't think that suffering has made me more generous. Nor, despite a certain giddy feeling, do I think that the drugs have much to do with it. My theory is that Murray-Smith has put away self-pity for the cruel pleasures of revenge, and in the process has discovered that she's really a comedian.

The Female of the Species is, supposedly, Murray-Smith's take on the legacy of Germaine Greer. As an intellectual argument, don't even think about it. Murray-Smith's feisty, foul-mouthed, charmingly arrogant celebrity feminist Margot Mason may, thanks to a champagne performance by Sue Ingleton, look and sound uncannily like Greer, but there is in fact no resemblance between the intellectual fiction and the fact. The plot too, such as it is, borrows from a real event - the invasion of Greer's Essex home by a disturbed student - but departs from it almost at once.

Margot Mason is working on a deadline for her latest book when a young woman, Molly Rivers (Bojana Novakovic) turns up with a gun and handcuffs Mason to her desk. Molly wants to shoot Mason, because she blames her for warping her mother's mind and ruining her life with her hit book The Cerebral Vagina. First, following Mason's advice, Molly's mother gave her away as a baby so she wouldn't be enslaved by motherhood. Then she jumped under a train clutching The Cerebral Vagina to her breast. Finally, in order to preserve her creativity Molly has sterilised herself so she can't have children, only to be told by Mason that she has no talent at all.

Then Margot's daughter Tess (Roz Hammond), who has embraced the full-time mother and housewife gig and, according to her mother, thrown away everything that was interesting about herself, stumbles through the French windows in her muddied pyjamas. She has blown a fuse after spending all night building a model cinema in balsa wood for a school project. When she sees Molly Rivers waving a gun around, she is in full agreement; her mother ought to be shot.

What follows is an increasingly improbable collection of people having increasingly absurd arguments, with all the classic farcical shifts of power and various revelations, including a nod to the identity questions in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Finally there are six characters on stage - the three women, plus Tess' emasculated SNAG husband Bryan (played with dazed charm by Peter Houghton), the virile ethnic taxi driver Frank Pecorini (Bert Labonte) and Margot Mason's over-the-top gay publisher, Theo (Michael Carman).

The Female of the Species is Murray-Smith's first full-length comic play, and is written in that most unforgiving form, the farce. A farce is a kind of glittering theatrical machine with a murderous clockwork logic that must be wound up tightly in the first scene. The rest of the play simply plays out the theatrical kinetics. In the best farces - Michael Frayn's Noises Off, Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw or The Importance of Being Earnest - the machinery is unobstrusive, exerting its necessity with a kind of deus ex machina inevitability.

Murray-Smith is not quite this skilled, and you can see some of the joins. The energy of the play begins to run down perhaps about two thirds of the way through, and the monologues that turn up around then are not a substitute for action.
Every now and then Murray-Smith also falls into the temptation of making what sounds suspiciously like a serious statement ("Sexism these days is subverted by irony"; "men aren't our problem; old feminists are"). I wish she wouldn't. When she leaves her characters unencumbered by credibility or meaning, permitting them to be recognisably sharp caricatures, the satire can be deadly: but the slightest sense of earnestness or moralising dulls its edge.

This is a fine production, with an elegantly practical design by Dale Ferguson which effectively updates the classic farce design from the English Edwardian stage: exits to right and left and (of course) French windows. I particularly liked Matt Scott's subtle lighting, which luminously and unobstrusively shifted the stage time from morning to night. And, of course, a large part of the charm of the evening is the cast, who under Patrick Nolan's assured direction seem to be having a ball. All of them have good lines, and they play their absurdities with the requisite self-blindness, the essential innocence, that farce profoundly requires.

People have already said that the laughter in the theatre, which must be music to the MTC finance officer's ears, reminds them of the heyday of David Williamson. I think that Murray-Smith is much funnier than Williamson. Her writing is more fluently intelligent, and she handles dramatic form with a sharper imagination.

And yes, it doesn't do to look too closely at the ideas in this play: despite the putative subject matter, it is not actually about feminism, but about that old comic standby, motherhood. Like a lot of satire, The Female of the Species has a blackly conservative subtext; don't expect any Ortonesque subversion here. The laughter is about recognition and affirmation, and gets no more dangerous than that. Yet. One feels that Murray-Smith's pen could get a lot more wicked, if she let it. I can't help feeling a lively curiosity about what she might do next, if she continues to open this vein.


Anonymous said...

'to open this vein'...I don't want to get freudian or be overly presumptuous but may I suggest 'mine this vein'? Anyway its good news to all that you're back on your feet.

Anonymous said...

"'to open this vein'...I don't want to get freudian..." Oh, you silly Anonymous. Can't you see it was intentional?

Alison Croggon said...

Heh heh - yes, it was on purpose! Motherhood is a bloody business, after all...

Anonymous said...

I wish to suggest (and I hope this doesn't sound disrespectful) that few plays can measure up to the best of Wilde, Orton, or Frayn, so to indicate that this play falls short of that empyrean ideal only puts it in a very large earthly company. Alison has described some of the ways this play doesn't work, but I wouldn't have minded a little more attention to how and when and why it does.

kimba said...

I know I am a bit late on this - as the show is going to close tonight - but I went to see it last night.

I was reminded why I have stopped going to the state theatre company - the show was speed run to death and, well, I get that the farce 'genre' if that is what it is called, relies on speed - the bland delivery made me feel that we were on a very fast train where everyone's features were blending into the same character.. and to escape from it I wished that I would fall into a swift coma.. Until the taxi driver arrived, Frank - who was thankfully not on the same rhythm as the rest of the cast.. and thankfully looked a fox in his well cut slacks.

Made me want to ditch my date and catch a taxi home it did..

Anonymous said...

I think the real like Molly and Margot should be invited to attend the press night together and exchange views.

Anonymous said...

Alison, I think you need to get over the fact that you bear a grudge aginst Joanna Murray-Smith and spend more time talking about the good points of the play. Also, you have a typo.... third paragraph, should be make, not made.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon, thanks for pointing out the typo. I don't have the luxury of subs, so the odd one gets through.

As for your other point: I feel sad that I have to point this out, but disagreeing with a certain aesthetic or finding a certain kind of writing intellectually or stylistically mediocre is not the same as bearing a grudge. My aesthetic and intellectual criticisms are (underneath the humour, which I fear misleads the unsophisticated) quite real ones.

Alison Croggon said...

(An irritated afterthought) Besides which, if I bear such an enormous grudge, why on earth did I give this bloody play a positive review?

Anonymous said...

I wasn't disagreeing with the fact that it was a positive review. It is just that you spend over 200 words talking about this “loathing” that exists between the two of you and it is seemingly irrelevant. You make it sound like the most painful thing in the world to actually compliment Murray-Smith. Sorry to offend you, I am only 13 years old and don’t really have that good of an understanding I must admit. But I just thought that a lot of the subtext within your review which rubbished all of Murray-Smith prior works wasn't really necessary, nor did it add anything positive to your writing.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon: I didn't mean to come down on you from a great height, especially if you are 13. In which case, good for you for taking issue.

Just to clarify: I wasn't offended, just irritated. If you'd followed the links, you would have found my divagations - surely they're pretty funny? - weren't irrelevant at all: we have a history of deep differences of opinion about feminism (which is the supposed subject of this play). And critics are supposed to contextualise a writer's work by, among other thing, discussing their previous work.

Anonymous said...

This was the most absurd, pointless and boring play.

MJS said...

Have just seen this presented in the most intimate of 'theatres' in Arundel, a very good performance all round, especially Bryan, and while I can see the inconsistencies in the script and characters, it made me laugh a lot (and not a the language) and that is invaluable.