SHIT theatre review (Southbank Theatre, Melbourne)

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The three women have just beaten a fourth woman almost to death. But there are no regrets. These women are not to be tamed and are not to be translated. Belched forth by the shadowed urban wilds, loitering and gabbling, they’re not ashamed of who they are or of what they’ve done. The world is constantly pushing them toward the margins; their unsociable behaviour is a self-conscious strategy of resistance, a way of carving out a little space and asserting themselves.

Don’t like how they talk? “Fuck off.” Don’t like what they have to say? “Fuck off.” It’s the obscene yawp of voices exalting in self-expression.

Playwright Patricia Cornelius is a past master of this rough drama for the urban underclasses. Like so much of her work, going right back to the mid-’90s, SHIT is a story of the alienated and the exploited. It’s about people who have been treated badly all their lives and who go on to treat others badly. Cornelius is most interested, now as ever, in the connections between social stratification and anti-social behaviour. Here her particular theme is the is the oppression of women. And it’s pretty grim stuff: the accumulation of pain, humiliation, self-loathing and fear.

And yet there’s something unexpectedly joyful about this latest production for the MTC’s Neon Festival of Independent Theatre.

Is it only the joy of putting strong, characterful women on stage? Cornelius certainly doesn’t offer any false hope for the future. There’s no way out of the cage for these women. First there will be prison, and then no doubt the same bad patterns will continue. And yet, like Genet’s criminals, the women do escape — but inwardly.

In the sheer excess of their provocation, they reveal, fleetingly, an ambiguous multitude of possibilities, a richness of personality that puts them beyond even the ideological agenda of the playwright. The stage welcomes their excesses and offers the women a chance — at least as a virtuality — to upset the social regime that defines some bodies as shit and others as sacrosanct.

And you could hardly ask for a sharper cast. Nicci Wilks bounces about the stage, always keen for a scrap, fearless, aggressive and full of the mockery and mistrust of one who knew too much too early. Peta Brady gives an impressive naturalistic finish to her portrayal of the quieter, more sensual of the women, and Sarah Ward is a million miles from her cult cabaret alter ego, Yana Alana, as a stoical brawler with a self-hating, misogynist streak.

But the script remains a little too fragmentary. Some passages astonish, with touching revelations about the strengths and the weakness of these complex women, but there’s a lack of connection, and the excitement doesn’t flow from scene to scene. At times it even feels — uncharacteristically for Cornelius — that the violence of the women is being excused rather than contextualised.

Director Susie Dee pulls it all together smartly enough, but, again, you don’t really get a sense of accumulation across the journey. The interludes between scenes, with bits of clowning and exaggeration, are too much like theatrical filler, undoing the power of what comes before. There’s also some rather hammy stage fighting that has the same effect.

Still, there are these incredible three characters. We may not ever know them completely, or know what they mean or why they did what they did, but in their brutal way they are good health for the theatre: and, as the poet says, give filter and fibre for the blood.

[box]SHIT is part of the Neon Festival at Melbourne Theatre Company, Southbank until July 5. Image of Peta Brady, Nicci Wilks and Sarah Ward by Sebastian Bourges [/box]

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