Sydney is currently presenting a study in feminist theatre in two parts. In two theatres.
At Belvoir St, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, from an all-female creative team, taps into the #MeToo movement through a contemporary rewrite and canny gender swap, turning the whistleblowing protagonist into a target of male disbelief.
A suburb over, Alana Valentine’s spacey new play at Seymour Centre, Ear To The Edge Of Time, uses an even unlikelier megaphone for its feminist outcry: an obnoxiously righteous straight, white man.
Daniel is a “professional poet”, whatever that is, so Tim Walter has his work cut out playing him. It comes off charmless. Daniel has been commissioned to write for an anthology of science poetry and is assigned to the Parkes Observatory, “the dish” outside of Parkes, to shadow young astrophysicist Martina (an erratic Gabrielle Scawthorn). She’s reluctant to participate, disbelieving that poetry could ever capture the complexity and boredom of logging data at a radio telescope in a sheep paddock. It’s a theory well founded, and the art-v-science metaphors can feel laboured.
But Martina makes a breakthrough: she discovers not one pulsar but, remarkably, two. That’s an astronomic game-changer, which Valentine’s script, a dense mass in itself, explains with impressive coherence. A giddy Martina can see her name etched onto the Nobel trophy, even before running the tests needed to confirm.
But her bubble bursts when supervisor Steven (Christopher Stollery, the most appealing member of the cast) is tipped off about the potential breakthrough, inadvertently by Daniel, and does the tests himself. He confirms the discovery and Martina is robbed.
It’s here where the narrative spins off orbit. Despite her obvious disappointment, Martina convinces herself and everyone else that it doesn’t matter. She’s the junior, he’s the superior, and there’s no “i” in “team”. And anyway, complaining about credit is something a woman’s scientific career can’t survive.
That’s a potent idea, one that no doubt plays out every day in a community run by and dominated by men – a woman’s selfless self-censorship to jump sexist workplace barriers.
But Valentine chooses to reflect that through her male poet. It’s Daniel who’s outraged and demands vengeance. He sees Steven’s act as one of sexism (hardly apparent in the piece) and believes Martina must fight for herself and womanhood. He lectures the audience on sexual equality and hectors Martina to cast aside her justified anxiety and win the war alone.
If a male playwright wrote it the audience would walk out. But it’s not a male, and Valentine, who gave us the solid The Sugar House at Belvoir earlier this year, does it self-consciously. Indeed, Martina, after a good hour of bullying, finally calls out Daniel for his martyred saviour complex.
But none of it rings true. And as a device to make her point on the compromises woman must still make, it’s a strange and entirely ineffective one.
The show comes with considerable pedigree. Valentine, a real talent, visited telescopes and physics departments around the world as research. The play won an international award for theatre that deals with science. The director here, Nadia Tass, has a resume of impressive work. As does production company Sport for Jove.
But Tass can’t seem to find a way through Valentine’s wordy script, a mix of Aaron Sorkin-like screwball patter and ponderous sky-gazing musings. It’s boring to look at, too, with a few chairs and images projected onto a space junk contraption in the middle of the black box to establish place (Shaun Gurton designed the set, David Parker the lighting).
For all its flaws, Enemy Of The People offered a real woman painfully tortured by the patriarchy. The science of Ear To The Edge Of Time is considerably less proven.
Ear To The Edge Of Time plays the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until October 27. (Photograph of Gabrielle Scawthorn and Christopher Stollery by Kate Williams).
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