Review: Top Girls ~ theatre notes

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Review: Top Girls

Okay, okay, I know I swore that I was writing no reviews for a month. But just this one, because it's important.

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Alison for reviewing this - as a Sydney-sider I won't, sadly, get to see this production. Caryl Churchill is the absolute greatest and I believe that Jenny Kemp is one of our most important theatre maker/directors in this country. I do wish she could be persuaded to do more - but then this time she's found a work that matters!

Keith Gow said...

I am so glad you have taken the time to review this top notch production of Caryl Churchill's masterpiece. I really would have missed your voice in any discussion of this play, particularly after you recently tweeted a link to your article about balancing work and motherhood.

I did wonder, and I remember Jenny Kemp making mention of this at the MTC launch last year, of whether the script would feel dated. I knew if anyone could fashion a production of this show that would resonate, it would be Kemp.

Of course, I don't think it does feel dated - even with its very specific setting in Thatcher's England. As you say, the link between the subjugation of women and the subjugation of class is still very relevant.

And, for me, the dinner party acts as a timeline that puts the 1980s scenes on a continuum and, as we watch the play in 2012, the audience can see where the line is and where it heads - and can get the sense of what has and has not changed. And in some ways, very little has changed.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Keith and Anon. No, it feels of its time and place - as say The Birthday Party feels of its time and place - but not at all dated. But that's about how good the writing is, I think, and especially that quality of suspension. It's a play that asks questions, rather than answers them.

Anonymous said...

In five years this is the only play we have failed to return to after intermission. We preferred to go and get a drink.
The first part was largely unintelligble, not just the accents but the constant talking over the top of one another.
The second part was unpleasant and endured rather than enjoyed.
Nothing about the first half gave us any reason to want to see the second half and we didn't.
I go to every MTC play every year and always expect to see two or three that either bore me or annoy me. But until we saw this I have never been motivated to leave before the end. It wasn't just the tiredness of the feminist themes as my two companions were both women and they were more eager to leave than I was.
I don't know whether to blame the direction or the play but I do hope this never returns.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Anon. I am all for your (and my) right to leave any performance. I've walked out of a few MTC shows myself. Still, even given the terrible times I've had watching, say, David Williamson's plays - and I rate them among the more terrible times I've had in a theatre - I'd never suggest that they ought to be banned from the stage.

Anonymous said...

Big difference, huge, to not bothering to restage a play and banning it. I reread my post and I don't think I even implied banning.

I was bemused by how differently two people can see the same production. You found it powerful and moving and I found it annoying. I know I struggle with plays that are strongly feminist. My wife has pointed out to me my lack of insight in this area. I'll concede that. But . . . is that all there is to my dislike? (There is probably no answer to that worth delving for).

The play I liked least in recent times was The Gift with its ridiculous premise. Unfortunately it was late in the second half when its ludicrousness was revealed. So my walk out looked like I was leaving because it was over. (Which it was).

By the way, I'm happy to put my name to my thoughts on this but I couldn't figure out how to not be anonymous.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon, yes: "ban" was the wrong word. But seriously, there is a wide range of possible response to any work of art: and so there should be. It's one thing to own your own responses to a work, and quite another to urge that nobody else should have a chance to decide for themselves. Churchill is (clearly) not for everyone, but she is regarded - in my view, quite rightly - as one of the most significant playwrights writing in English in the past half century. She is produced all too rarely on our main stages. Right now her most recent play has just opened at the Royal Court in London, and I'm wondering if I will ever get a chance to see it.

Alison Croggon said...

Actually, to your second question - I doubt that Churchill's feminism would have been your major problem. She has always been a formally audacious writer, and if you are used to more conventional plays, perhaps the ways she plays with language and form contributed to your impatience. Although I can hardly second guess your experience. For me, those different ways of exploring dramatic language throw new insights and complexities on my own responses, shocking me out my own expectations, and so I find them liberating. But it does mean that instead of looking for conventional "sense", you have to open your perceptions to perhaps unfamiliar ways of seeing and feeling. I find that very rewarding, at least in the case of artists of this calibre (meaning Kemp and the production team as much as Churchill) but of course it's a choice, conscious or not, that every individual audience member makes. No invitation is compulsory.

joan and gabrielle said...

Hi Alison, I was fascinated by your overwhelming reaction to "Top Girls". I'm a feminist, lived in Britain during the Thatcher years and have seen the play before. Yet both times it has seemed to me unwieldy as a structure. I think you're kind to describe the first scene as "magic realism" - I don't think cross-century characters and waitresses with rabbit heads are enough to qualify. I rack my brains to think how Churchill (or Kemp) could have got across the ideas of the first scene without this rather undramatic talking-heads dinner-party scene. Perhaps it would work better with fewer characters. For me it is overly schematic as well.We don't accept in a novel characters who are chosen to represent something or to demonstrate a concept. Why would we, then, in a drama? I also thought the speed at which the scene was played was a problem, with a lot of the depth lost, except perhaps towards the very end of the scene where only two characters were speaking.
For these reasons I can understand why a lot of people left at interval (how, I wonder, can Anon comment on the second half if he did?) though I would have thought the promise of the second scene would have kept them there.I am an inveterate walker-out, especially from the MTC, but I stayed because I knew what was coming.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Joan (or Gabrielle) - thanks for your response! Just a note: I didn't call it "magical realism", which is a very particular label for a certain kind of fiction. The phrase I used was "almost magical reflexiveness", which is an attempt to describe the effect that Churchill's structure often has for me, in terms of its suspending its meanings for the duration of the show, so that the sense it makes comes retrospectively, with a kind of rearranging shock, in the final moments. I too can understand why people might leave; but I know why I stayed.

Characters "demonstrating a concept" are as old as the Everyman mediaeval Miracle Plays; they've always existed in drama. Why shouldn't they be accepted? Churchill is I think exploiting that tradition, but all the same, in this case they're a bit too complex to be merely allegories. It's an interesting tension. The night I went the performances didn't feel too fast; I thought it a little sticky in the first ten minutes or so, and then, once the performances warmed up, found myself wholly absorbed. But I guess responses depend on what chords are plucked in your subjectivity: for me, obviously, it was a lot of chords...

stev said...

I really enjoyed your description of the structure of the play likening it to building an arch with the keystone dropped in with the final scene. That made a lot of sense to me and also captured the gist of a conversation I had with an elderly couple at interval at a matinee performance of Top Girls. The man asked me if I knew what it was all about and as we got to chatting his wife joined us. I found myself saying to them to stick with it and it will come together in the end. This was one of those plays where the audience is asked to be a little more engaged and put it together themselves. They weren't so sure, but they took my promise that Marlene will come back in the second half and stayed. I hope it came together at the end for them as it did for me. I'm so glad I made the trip from NSW (I was visiting friends as well).