I was completely unprepared for the emotional impact of watching Jenny Kemp's brilliant production of Top Girls. It was as if an abscess of grief and anger were lanced deep inside me: all the things I already know, that are reconfirmed in the media every day, in casual conversation and trivial encounters, in a lifetime's experience of being a woman, were given form and focus and represented anew. It's a long time since I've read or seen this play, perhaps the most famous of Caryl Churchill's extraordinary oeuvre: but as Kemp and her team so lucidly demonstrate, it remains as powerful as it was when it was first performed in the 1980s, at the height of Thatcher's Britain.
|L-R: Li-Leng Au, Anita Hegh and Maria Theodorakis in Top Girls. Photo: Jeff Busby|
Most of all, Top Girls released an overpowering sadness. To be a woman in a male-dominated world is to be the second sex: millennia of cultural conditioning can't be overthrown in a generation, or even in a century. And what this play argues, with unwavering pitilessness, is that the subjugation of women can't be separated from the subjugation of class. It's a play driven by the "shuddering horror" described in a letter to her lover by Rosa Luxemburg, which the British poet Keston Sutherland recently quoted in a paper on Revolution and Being Really Alive:
"[T]his feeling of shuddering horror does not let go of me […] Especially when I lie down to sleep, this fact [of my mother’s death] immediately arises again before my eyes, and I have to groan out loud from pain. I don’t know how it is with you but I don’t suffer mainly from longing anymore and I don’t suffer on my own account, but what makes me shudder every time is this one thought: what kind of life was that! What has this person lived through, what is the point of a life like that! I don’t know of any thought that is so dreadful for me as this one; I feel as though it would tear me apart if I began to think about it, and yet it comes to me under the most surprising circumstances, at any moment."
There's some dialogue in the second half of Top Girls that so precisely echoes Luxemburg's letter, that I wonder if it is one of the seeds of the play itself. What kind of a life is that? And the passion and horror of this question tears apart the shallowness of popular critiques of feminism. It's all too easy for the western middle class - and especially for men and women who argue that feminism is over, that women are quite equal enough - to ignore the poverties that the west has outsourced to so-called "developing" countries, and even to ignore those that exist closer to home. Yet these poverties - physical, economic and intellectual - exist everywhere, inflicting their damage of millions of lives. And, as study after study has shown, it is women who bear the brunt. What can equality possibly mean if the glamorous board room success of a few does nothing to change the lives of the many?
Churchill exposes these questions with a text that remains formally audacious, and which made me reflect how slight are the ambitions of most contemporary plays. She combines a sense of total formal freedom with an almost icy control of her metaphors. I've noticed before that Churchill's work has an odd effect: it's only at the end that everything suddenly slots into place. It's as if she is building an architecturally impossible arch, which may fall down at any moment: and then, in the final moments, she places the keystone, and all at once the structure reveals itself as clear and formally irreproachable. It's this almost magical reflexiveness, a mixture of complete imaginative freedom and stern dramaturgical and stylistic discipline, that makes her one of the major English language playwrights of the past half century.
Her formal ingenuity also allows Churchill to suspend meaning, so that her work never falls into trite didactism. For Churchill, a play is a form that releases ideas, rather than encloses them in a moral homily. As with many of the most exciting playwrights, this can make her a challenge to present on stage: a director looking for a "message" will inevitably make the play less than it is. Jenny Kemp's direction, however, is equal to the text. I can't imagine a better production.
As is well known, the first half of Top Girls is a fantasy dinner party, arranged by Marlene (Anita Hegh) to celebrate her promotion as a corporate executive. She invites a number of women, real and legendary: Lady Nijo (Li-Leng Au), Imperial concubine and Buddhist nun; Isabella Bird (Margaret Mills), Victorian traveller; Dull Gret (Sarah Ogden), the subject of a painting by Breughel; the apocryphal Pope Joan (Maria Theodorakis); and Patient Griselda (Nikki Shiels), who arrives late, the fairtytale peasant girl married to a prince, who demonstrates inhuman loyalty in some inhuman testing of her fidelity. The setting then shifts brutally to Thatcher's Britain, where a non-chronological story about Marlene's work, and in particular her relinquished daughter Angie (Eryn Jean Norville), open up the wounds of class and sex, exploring the same ideas in contemporary terms. In a way, the effect is quite simple: the mundane encounters of the everyday are opened out into a historical perspective, complicating both.
Dale Ferguson's design and Richard Vabre's lighting exploit the potentials of the Sumner Theatre better than anything I've seen there yet. The design elements are simple and few, but all of them feel essential. And as we might expect with Kemp, there are some breathtaking visual transformations.
Kemp introduces the play with a brief glimpse of Marlene, daydreaming at her desk as she reflects on her promotion, with the brutalist cityscape of modern London illuminated behind her: a conceit that means Marlene summons the fantasy dinner, with its dreamlike elements emphasised by a rabbit-headed waitress. Halfway through the dinner party, as the tone darkens, a silvery curtain descends, enclosing the cast in a fairytale forest, which then itself reddens to a depiction of hell. The office scenes take place on a broadly lit stage, every detail exposed under a wide light; the final domestic scenes, in contrast, are given us as a pool of naturalistic detail on a huge, dark stage. When actors walk off, they disappear into the shadows.
The show is punctuated by glimpses of Elizabeth Drake's various compositions, placed with absolute tact to heighten particular scenes or dialogue, or to orchestrate the transitions between scenes. This also heightens the sense, which is foregrounded by the crossing dialogue, that Churchill writes her plays with the ear of a composer, attentive to the rhythms and sounds of spoken utterance as much as to its meanings.
But the emotional weight of the show relies on the ensemble cast, led by Hegh's spikily assured performance of a woman grappling with the price of her success. Kemp has gathered an impressive cast, and there are no small performances here. As the production cumulatively builds its complexities it gathers power, racing to the devastating final conflict between the two sisters, Marlene and Joyce (Maria Theodorakis): the sister who escapes her destiny in the underclass, the sister who remains. The performances are nuanced with great delicacy, switching between heightened theatricality and heightened realism, comedy and sorrow. The only criticism, and in the face of the wider achievements it's minor, is the odd wavering accent.
It shows what happens when great contemporary writing meets imaginations prepared to take it on its own terms. You get theatre that wakes you, intellectually and emotionally. You get theatre that questions instead of confirming the status quo. You get theatre that matters. Top Girls is indisputably the highlight of the Melbourne Theatre Company's main stage season this year.
Further reading: Churchill's The Skriker
Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Jenny Kemp. Sets and costumes by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Richard Vabre, composition and sound design Elizabeth Drake. With Li-Leng Au, Anita Hegh, Margaret Mills, Eryn Jean Norvill, Sarah Ogden, Nikki Shiels and Maria Theodorakis. Melbourne Theatre Company at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, until September 29.