If there is a record for the number of times the word “fuck” was said in an opening monologue, Patricia Cornelius’ Shit, playing as part of this year’s MTC Neon Festival, has just broken it.
Shit is a show about women. It is about those women we hate, though we would never admit it. It’s about the women we are scared of, those we shy away from on public transport, the women we cross the road to avoid. It’s about the women who fight and spit and swear and scream. The women who stare at you – into you – demanding you do something to stop them, until you shrink away and pretend they don’t exist.
These women are rarely seen – truly seen – in real life let alone in a theatre, much less a respectable, main-stage theatre attended by middle-class audience members who sip on their Riesling and discuss the merits of modern art. But in Shit, these women demand to be seen. “You don’t want to hear our stories? Fuck off,” they say early in the play. And although a part of you wants to run away, you don’t. Partly because you can’t without disrupting the performance, but mostly because there is an energy, a humour, a life to these women that deserves your attention.
Cornelius’ script is cutting, funny and tragic. It tells the story of three women –Billy (Nicci Wilks), Bobby (Sarah Ward) and Sam (Peta Brady) – all from an impoverished, forgotten underclass, who find themselves in prison together after a vicious incident. They comfort each other and fight with each other, exchanging terrifying war stories of abuse, sex, drugs, self-harm, violence and crime. Billy insists she never cries; Sam wants a baby to love, only to be ridiculed by the others. Bobby doesn’t even want to be a woman and, in a stomach-churning rant, cloaks herself in the outside world’s misogyny as her last form of self-protection.
Cornelius’ subtle but wounding commentary on what it means to be a woman is what cuts deepest. What does being a woman even look like? What happens when you’re not a woman in the right way? What happens when you try your best to be a good woman but you are still abused and violated? What sort of women will we allow in our world, and what sort of women get kicked into the shadows?
The performances from all three actors are striking, nuanced, flawed and deeply human. Wilks is electrifying as the unapologetic, angry Billy. Brady imbues Sam with both strength and vulnerability, without losing her irreverence and venom. Ward’s Bobby is similarly light and dark, but filled with a rage that forever threatens to split her open.
Marg Howell’s set is all at once claustrophobic and huge. Its colourless, empty, far-reaching space is interrupted with three cubes cut into a wall, which confine the women and unite them, inciting both movement and stillness. Howell’s costumes strike a fine balance between familiarity – we have all seen these women on the train – and individuality. Lighting design by Rachel Burke works beautifully to evoke the scary darkness and lighter moments of connection in these women’s lives. It is stark and uncomfortable, which is complex in ideas but deceptively simple. Similarly, sound design by Anna Liebzeit is eerie and affecting. Stage manager Bec Moore is to be commended for her flawless execution.
Director Susie Dee has done a marvellous job moulding the actor’s performances and amplifying Cornelius’ script, which really highlights the humanness of the women’s stories. It would have been interesting to see the physical theatre elements explored further, as there is potential for the silent use of bodies to broaden and deepen the issues so deftly illuminated throughout the play.
Shit is an exercise in challenging an audience: We are just like you, these three women seem to say. We’re shit. You’re shit. Just different kinds of shit. You could have been us if things were different, and we could have been just like you.
Shit is uncomfortable, upsetting and haunting. It is a confronting, terrifying reminder of the lives that go wrong, the lives that were doomed before they even began, and the little we do to stop it.