Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again: A review

"Simultaneously a theatrical assault and a call to arms." Aimee Rutherford reviews another successful play by Mermaids.

Photo: Mermaids

This show was utter madness, and I loved it.

Revolt is not your average play. The script is fit to burst with wordplay, underlying meanings and unorthodox characters, and it certainly doesn’t serve its plot on a plate. Making sense of the mayhem is a very real challenge for audience members, but we were encouraged to embrace the chaos, take in the symbolism and watch the revolutionary message unfold. This was an unexpected powerhouse of a production; it was bedlam, but it was brilliant.

Divided into mini narratives, each scene dealt with different yet connected struggles for women in the 21st century. Through the deconstruction of language, human relationships, and even theatre itself, Revolt makes strikingly clear how deeply these issues are ingrained into the fabric of society. The play’s rejection of any and every structure is itself an act of revolt, forcing us to question the way we talk, behave, and interact in response to the patriarchal system.

Braving Alice Birch’s insanely unruly and complex script requires a huge amount of creativity, flexibility and willingness to work with rather than against her experimental, frantic style. There are infinite possibilities for staging for a script like this, and getting it right is vital for the fragmented story to make any sense. Thankfully, Mermaids’ version was superbly directed. Rowan Wishart made inventive use of the space, props and tech to switch up the aesthetic and shift the tone from scene to scene, maintaining the show’s dynamism but most importantly, telling parts of the story that audiences would otherwise easily miss. In many cases, the nature of the relationships onstage only really became clear through crucial directorial choices, and Rowan’s interweaving of visual symbols, such as lipstick, petals and cling film, mirrored the script in a way that emphasised the themes at work. The diversity of the direction was fascinating and impressive: from having characters face in opposite directions despite being in the same room to present the distance between them, to more abstract stage directions including cutting the lipstick with a knife and fork and vomiting up the petals, the show was hugely visually powerful.

The limited space of The Barron was worked commendably in this production; it really was like a different space. Employing a thrust-stage style brought the audience close around the action on three sides, making for an intimate and immersive show. This was enhanced when, instead of addressing some lines to imaginary figures or other characters, the actors directly engaged with audience members from time to time, often to great comic effect. Indeed, for a show that is packed with dark and difficult themes, Revolt was unexpectedly funny. Birch’s script is rich in intelligent satire, melodrama and many a tasteful innuendo (many of which involve food, and melons in particular). The actors played up to the laughing crowd and thrived within the pauses; their timing and delivery of the lines was responsible for much of the humour. Above all, though, it was the satire and melodramatic performances that the audience appreciated most. The inversion of gender roles between a histrionic sex-obsessed male character (AJ Brennan) and his playfully derisive female partner (Sarah Chamberlain), who burlesques his objectification of her until he is incredibly awkward, had the room in stitches from the start.

Throughout the show, serious issues were often portrayed with extraordinary humour, but also with incredibly sincerity. This production was unafraid to cut through moments of light-heartedness like a pair of scissors through cling film – at one point literally. This particularly striking moment occurred when an anonymous female character (Molly Williams), who had remained wall-facing throughout several scenes, suddenly turned around, rose and delivered a devastating speech in which she willingly surrendered her body to the patriarchal system as a twisted means of self-empowerment. Cutting through the cling film in which she had encased her body, and removing her make-up onstage, the character’s moving critique of society’s consumption culture with regard to the body simultaneously expressed the limits of female agency. The only way that this character believed she could reclaim power over her body was by ‘choosing’ to give it up. The audience had been laughing before, but here you could have heard a pin drop. From scene to scene and in some cases moment to moment, throughout this staging of Revolt, the audience was moved from explosive laughter to deadened silence. One moment loud, flippant and confident, the characters soon changed to become heartbreakingly vulnerable and distressed victims of oppression. The play’s presentation of society’s sadistic apathy combined with the raw anguish of female characters certainly reinforced Birch’s desire for radical change.

Revolt combines so many elements and emotions, and it is a lot to take in. Admittedly, there were times when I had next to no idea what was going on. The ever-changing tone, the rapid-fire dialogue and the sheer density of the script, which dives straight into each scene with new characters and situations without much initial explanation, sometimes made it difficult to follow. However, even in these whirlwind moments, the play was still enjoyable. What made this production so effective was its ability to perfectly capture the specific tone of each scene, to make audiences feel for and with the characters even if they did not fully comprehend their situations at first. This is credit to the actors’ performances, which were hard-hitting and moving. Playing multiple physically and emotionally demanding roles, the cast threw themselves into their characters whole-heartedly, and you couldn’t help but resonate with them as they made their arguments and/or broke down. The tragic impact of the oppressive patriarchal structure on the lives of these characters was, to a great extent, far more important than the specifics of their circumstances. Nevertheless, a huge part of the entertainment was trying to connect the dots, to actively figure out who was who and what each scene meant within the context of the wider play.

In every way, the play itself is simultaneously a theatrical assault and a call to arms. With back-and-forth conflict, fast-paced scene changes and so much going on onstage, as an audience we are bombarded with innumerable issues regarding gender and the wider world, all woven into personal stories and everyday circumstances. Birch’s staging of chaos cleverly demonstrates the overwhelmingly irrational and confused nature of society; the script is a poignant embodiment of the ways in which we become caught up and lost in the overpowering social structures that work against us. For Revolt, this is a world in which life for women is a battleground, where society’s relationship with gender has an overwhelming, devastating impact on women’s lives. This production provided a fascinating and incredibly resonant artistic parallel of our own society, and left us with the question, ‘Who knew that life could be so awful?’ The play’s irresolution leaves us dissatisfied and wanting more. The characters revolted once, and lost – for the characters we so readily invested in, the world failed. But we reject this failure as final. Instead, we are compelled to take Birch’s ultimate message out of the theatre with us: She said. Revolt again.


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