Written by Lucy Eyre
First developed as part of the Black Swan Theatre Company’s Emerging Writers Group in 2016 (dramaturged and facilitated by writer/director Jeffrey Jay Fowler), The Blue Room Theatre, Renegade Productions and new feminist collective Bow & Dagger present “Medusa”, written by Finn O’Branagáin and directed by Joe Lui.
When the programme notes advise that “It’ll be loud and messy. There will be naked performers moving around you. You are encouraged to move and shout with the performers, this is a ritual performance” – you know you’re in for an uncommon theatrical experience.
When entering the space you are met by partially naked young female (and one male) performers, who move around chanting and repeating the familiar phrases that women automatically summon in their everyday lives. The phrases are part of the checklist that women call to mind to mitigate their safety from unsolicited attacks in the most mundane situations, such as entering their own home. This structured vocal and physical incantation beautifully captures the ritualistic nature of the performance and sets the tone for what is to come.
Performers Moana Lutton, Sandy McKendrick, Jacinta Larcombe, Jess Moyle, Mani Mae Gomes, Michelle Aitken and Andrew Sutherland tirelessly give a high octane fusion of dance, movement, song and storytelling that feels primeval and yet, is entirely performative. Writer O’Branagáin is retelling traditional myths of female figures and goddesses, such as Medusa and Athena. The research and development process included reading Ovid’s Metamorphosis and essays that reveal and discuss Medusa as a sexual assault victim. At the same time, O’Branagáin read articles that revealed that women over 50 are most at risk of homelessness. In the Writer’s Notes in the programme O’Branagáin says that “although disparate, they collided in my head in a unifying thought: that both women who are homeless and women who have been victims of sexual assault have something that turns people to stone and you have to turn your heart to stone to keep walking by them, or to say that they are liars.” The play mentions Jill Meagher’s last few moments of life when she had been having drinks with friends then decided to walk home – a seemingly normal activity which resulted in her being raped and murdered in Melbourne. Instead of discussing why people’s hearts turn to stone or why they doubt the claims of assault, the performance interweaves present day assaults with stories of the origins and myths of women’s innate power that has been controlled or quashed. I agree with writer, O’Branagáin, that Lui has “exploded these ideas into an eruption of energy, durational effort, anger and solidarity. He’s made it an experience.”
It is difficult for performances to be immersive, whereby audience members participate in the performance, as it places them in a vulnerable position. I understand how this approach could potentially uplift and enlighten audiences more than just witnessing the proceedings. However, I suggest that the structure of the piece as the audience enters the space, and their desire to listen to and understand the performers, keeps the audience at a distance instead of opening up the ritual for their participation, as is encouraged in the programme and announcement before the show. Consequently, at the performance I attended, the audience stood at the periphery, against the wall, watching and listening. I was waiting to be drawn into the ritual and was willing to participate but the moment never seemed to open up. And as I contemplated the prospect, I realised that the performance would leave participants stranded as the action propelled forward and moved to different parts of the space. Furthermore, the partial nakedness of the female performers would make some audience members (particularly men) feel reluctant to participate.
If the main objective of the piece is to create an immersive, participatory experience I suggest having the performers lead the audience into the space to seemingly random seating areas in the performance areas where performers could join the audience and involve them in the action by holding hands and/or moving around the space.
Director Joe Lui and the performers have embarked on and produced a bold and experimental piece of theatre with aplomb. The females in “Medusa” are not victims. They are reminding us of the power of women: as a defiant gesture that needs to be continually repeated and asserted. Likewise, the feminist movement does need men like Lui and performer Sutherland to be involved in these stories to show their solidarity and support, but we also need male writers, directors and performers to, simultaneously, investigate and shed light on the reasons why some men need to dominate and suppress the power of women.
“Medusa” is showing at The Blue Room Theatre until 3 November.
Photo credit: Scott McArdle