My mum sometimes complains that I’m too politically outspoken on Facebook. I need to calm down. The world isn’t really that bad (she thinks it’s all because I did an arts degree). We all know that being ‘political’ is an identity and a way of life and of seeing the world. Sometimes I have arguments with strangers on Facebook, then later wonder why I let myself get so stressed out and waste my time. Ultimately that person wasn’t planning on changing their mind anyway, and neither was I.
There’s a deep satisfaction to hear someone spout a political belief you agree with. There’s a deep frustration to hear one you disagree with. Facebook amplifies these emotions. Battle lines are drawn, erased, redrawn. These feelings come with me into the theatre to see Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. What do I want from this show? To see myself? To receive that feeling of validation? To be criticised, called out, motivated to be better? To access that rare, glorious feeling of coming together, united in a cause, hovering on the cliff of action?
Maybe it’s more about encountering the body on stage in mutilation and chaos, an affective prayer towards disenchantment with the state? The show isn’t just ‘about’ political action; it also ‘is’ action. The artists are acting, and the theatre is reality, and our bodies are affected by it. That said, it’s still a play, with audience and stage and script. I feel comfortable watching it and laugh and sometimes clap.
First we see four scenes, staged in a box that feels like a nostalgic movie set. In the first two, a man wants something, and a woman expresses a feminist opposition to it. Man-centred sex. Heterosexual marriage. In the second two, a woman has decided something, and others try and fail to dissuade her from it. That she will stop working Mondays. That she can do whatever she wants with her body. They are scenes where women are empowered. The scenes are powerful and important and funny and easy to digest, at least until the last women climbs atop the movie set and starts shouting at the audience. Then things get difficult.
The work here starts putting forward a fairly specific politics around consent and structural power. The shouting woman claims that after having her body violated several times, she has decided on a simple solution – to consent to every one of these encounters. If she chooses it, it’s not bad, and she’s in control. To demonstrate this, she goes to a supermarket, undresses and starts masturbating with melons. The satire is meant to show that ‘consent’ is a lofty ideal for women who receive structural violence against them regularly; in a patriarchal system, women are pressured and forced to give consent and ultimately one cannot consent to being gendered as a woman by (leering or violent) strangers, and therefore a feminist revolution is necessary to make true (free, prior, informed) consent possible.
But what does a feminist revolution look like? The more radical the proposition, the more problems we find. Stop associating with men? Reproducing? Marrying? Dramatic scenes serve as the soil for these ideological seeds. Sometimes the seed grows into something beautiful or useful, other times the seed creates problems (like, some women not wanting to cut ties with all men). In some places I think the soil could use more tilling: for instance, the idea that women who perform in pornography (particularly that which depicts their bodies being treated in degrading ways) should simply choose not to. This to me reeks of privilege, and a framework that places cisgender and heterosexual experiences at the centre of everything. The patronising idea that women who work in pornography are victims, wrongly lured into sex work by patriarchal messages, is not only offensive to their intelligence and autonomy, but seems ignorant of the economic conditions that prevent real social and economic mobility for many sex workers. The assumption that (even offensive) porn is responsible for toxic attitudes towards women also seems presumptuous. Most people are in fact capable of distinguishing video fantasies from real life, and I don’t see Alice Birch campaigning against violence in cinemas.
This disappointing moment doesn’t reflect the whole show, though. The first scene presented a wonderful queer/feminist inversion of heterosexual sex, which I loved. As the play goes on, it becomes less an argument and more a reflection of the social experience of argumentation. People run across stage screaming increasingly absurd slogans and quickly changing costumes. The movie set rolls forward and backward. It feels chaotic and self-destructive and true to my Facebook argument reality. Janice Muller’s direction was attentive to nuance and complexity in the script, while still orchestrating an arresting spectacle. The set design (Marg Horwell) was impressive: clean and bold, with tree stumps scattered around the space giving a kind of heavy, organic, textural counterpoint. Lighting by Emma Valente was astonishing, both stark and psychedelic. Performances were full of life and humour. Altogether it’s a grand, provocative work, calling powerfully for action over theory while engaging actively with the limits of theatrical representation.