Melbourne playwright Patricia Cornelius is one of the best at her craft in this country. Passionate about the facilitation of more opportunities for female writers, Cornelius has penned several thought-provoking and confronting works. Last year, under the direction of Tim Roseman, Cornelius’ Savages (inspired by the events surrounding the death of Dianne Brimble on a cruise ship in 2002) was a highlight of Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s 2016 season. Early this year, the Green Room Award-winner Shit received an excellent reception as part of the Sydney Festival. It will return to Sydney’s Seymour Centre for an encore season in July.
Another of Cornelius’ works, Slut, had its Sydney premiere in 2016 as part of Women in Theatre and Screen’s (WITS) inaugural Festival Fatale. The one-night season was a sell-out success, garnering strong reviews and ultimately received a nomination for Best Ensemble at the 2016 Sydney Theatre Awards.
Starting Tuesday, Sydney audiences will have a further chance to see the critically acclaimed production of Slut, as it takes to the Old Fitz Theatre stage through to June 24. Itself a multi-award winning title, Slut tells the story of a young girl, Lolita, from her childhood years through to challenging times as a teenager.
“We follow her life as a young woman and negotiating growing into womanhood,” director Erin Taylor tells Theatre People.
“There’s a wonderful interrogation of that word [‘slut’] in this play, about how it can be used as an empowering word … and then, at other times, it can be used as a weapon against [Lolita] and against young women in a derogatory way.”
Last year, Taylor was assistant director on Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production of Savages. She recalls how the idea to stage Slut came to her when she became aware of WITS Festival Fatale, a two-day festival celebrating female-driven theatre works, staged at the Eternity Playhouse – the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company – last October.
“I thought that it would be a beautiful synchronicity to have Savages and Slut on the same stage in the same year,” Taylor says.
“The festival was such a great celebration of female theatre-makers, and Patricia Cornelius has led the way for so many women to have a career in the theatre. So, it was perfect.”
Asked to pinpoint what it is she most enjoys about Cornelius’ plays, Taylor says she consistently returns to two words to describe the playwright’s work – ‘poetic’ and ‘brutal’.
“It is something that is quite beautiful, but then … the way she can eviscerate people with language is amazing,” she says.
“And I think she has – which is a thing of great writers – an ear for dialogue. The thing about Savages is that she captured how those men spoke and how they spoke about women. In Slut, she captures how young women speak and how they speak to each other and about each other, their bodies and sex. She has this incredible ear for the Australian vernacular, but she doesn’t sit in straight realism, she really manages to elevate it up into this world where we can sit back and watch what’s going on … She is able to do that so beautifully and powerfully.”
Taylor reflects on the importance of bringing this piece to the Australian stage in 2017.
“I think it’s important on a number of levels,” she says. “In terms of the content, I think there’s no doubt that one of the biggest conversations we’re having in Australia at the moment is about women, violence against women, and sexual violence against women, and how we need to have conversations about women’s ownership over their bodies and the way we speak about women’s bodies and the way we teach young women to have ownership and speak about their bodies as well.”
She also notes the importance of Slut today in the context of the current discussion in Australian theatre around the need to work towards greater representation of women.
“We’re having a big conversation about women’s voices on stage and women on stage,” Taylor says. “It’s one of these great pieces that has an entire female cast, and Patricia Cornelius has been such an advocate and a champion for women writers and women in theatre.”
One major change to which Taylor and her cast of five (Julia Dray, Jessica Keogh, Danielle Stamoulos, Maryann Wright and Bobbie-Jean Henning) must adjust for Slut’s return to Sydney is the venue. Originally staged in the 200-seat Eternity Playhouse, the piece will play this season in the much cosier Old Fitz Theatre, which seats only 60.
“It is a challenge, but the beauty about this play is that it’s wonderfully self-contained and it really is about the words and the performers. It can really be set or staged anywhere,” Taylor says.
“I think the Old Fitz is a fantastic venue for it because it is so small and the content is quite confronting, so I think that it will be challenging for audiences, but I think it will be great to be so close to the actors.”
Taylor discusses the responses of those who attended the show last year.
“I think what we’ve experienced creating it and performing it is that most women who have seen it are instantly thrown back into those very vivid years of your teenagehood and negotiating that,” she says. “I think that’s how you know Patricia has created something so powerful, because we all have been thrown back into those stories and those memories that are so alive in your head of that period of time. And I think that probably goes for young men as well.”
Taylor emphasises that Slut certainly isn’t a play for female audiences only.
“Obviously, there’s a great appeal for women, and particularly young women, but Savages wasn’t a play just for men. That was a play for everyone … The conversation that we are having is about gender politics and gender interaction in our country and what that means. Where are we now with misogyny? Where are we now with slut-shaming and victim-blaming?
“So, I would love young women to come along, but I would also encourage men to come along too, just like with Savages. To have a good conversation, it’s got to have both sides, not just one gender watching and talking about it.”
SLUT – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre, 129 Dowling Street (Cnr Cathedral Street), Woolloomooloo
Dates: 13 – 24 June 2017
Times: Tue – Sat 6:15pm; Sun 4:30pm
Duration: 30 minutes