Margaret Thatcher was the first female Prime Minister in the United Kingdom’s history. But far from being a woman who championed feminism, Thatcher is remembered by many as a leader who did nothing to promote the political and social progression of her gender. In an opinion piece for The Guardian penned days after the death of the former British PM in 2013, Hadley Freeman described Thatcher as “one of the clearest examples of the fact that a successful woman doesn’t always mean a step forward for women”, highlighting that only one woman was promoted to her cabinet during 11 years in office. Freeman went on to say that both Thatcher and fashion designer Coco Chanel “ultimately had little interest in being kind to their own sex”, lacking a sense of collegiality.
It was during the initial years of Thatcher’s reign that Caryl Churchill wrote Top Girls. First performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1982, it provokes thought about the price women pay for breaking the elusive glass ceiling. It prompts us to think about the principles and people that may be compromised or cast off, as part of a woman’s efforts to take and share power with men.
In Churchill’s play, set in England in the 1980s, ‘Top Girls’ is the recruitment agency where Marlene (Helen Thomson) has beaten out a male colleague for the role of managing director. As its name suggests, it’s an agency specifically for female jobseekers, but it’s quickly apparent that Marlene and her colleagues, Nell (Paula Arundell) and Win (Michelle Lim Davidson), don’t understand – or don’t care to understand – their clients. It’s a fact amply evidenced by an exchange between Win and Louise (Heather Mitchell), an accomplished woman who arrives at the agency seeking a new role, fed up with the lack of value placed on her contributions in her current role.
To celebrate her promotion, Marlene hosts a dinner party, inviting five women from art, history and literature to attend (the implication being that no one in her own life would want to attend or even be invited). The women at Marlene’s dinner table include Isabella Bird (Kate Box), a 19th century British explorer and popular travel writer; Lady Nijō (Lim Davidson), a Japanese concubine of a 13th century emperor, who later became a Buddhist nun; Dull Gret (Contessa Treffone), a figure from a painting by 16th century renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel that promotes a misogynistic message; Pope Joan (Mitchell) who, according to medieval legend, was pope for a few years in the Middle Ages; and Patient Griselda (Arundell), a subject of European folklore, who appeared as a character in a number titles (including Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) and is noted for her patience and obedience.
Each of Marlene’s dinner guests share stories of their lives and accomplishments, and gradually it’s revealed how each of these women has been hindered and/or repressed because of their gender and, once again, the question of the cost and compromise associated with gaining power arises.
As well as an insight into Marlene’s work life, there’s also a glimpse provided of her working class family. Her unadulterated teenage niece, Angie (Treffone), and her older sister, Joyce (Box), are introduced late in the first act. The interaction between the two adults indicates the toll Marlene’s ambition has taken on her familial relationships.
Top Girls is intelligently written, provocative, poignant, razor sharp and beguiling and, in the hands of director Imara Savage, makes for outstanding contemporary theatre. While the play remains a stunning piece of writing, its focus on gender inequality has obviously ensured its continued global relevance 36 years on from its debut performance.
Savage has taken Churchill’s text to create a first-class production that showcases its shrewd construction. The dinner party scene is beautifully staged and allows Churchill’s overlapping dialogue to depict the discordance at the table with clarity. Concerned about their own plights and unable to reconcile the issues faced in each of their times, these women aren’t listening to one another, despite their commonalities. Savage also succeeds in her handling of the show’s non-linear structure – there is no confusion regarding contexts.
Showing her meticulous attention to detail, Renée Mulder’s costumes are some of the best you’ll see on Sydney stages this year. From Pope Joan’s impressive formal regalia, to Lady Nijō’s elegant jūnihitoe, to Marlene’s 1980s office chic, each character is wonderfully realised. David Fleischer’s set ensures each scene plays out stylishly, and Max Lyandvert’s sound design enhances integral moments. The Rolling Stones’ hit ‘Sympathy for the devil’ is suggestively incorporated.
Savage has assembled a remarkable cast of seven women to portray the piece’s 16 characters. Thomson is tremendous as the assertive, hard-nosed and starkly unemotional entrepreneur, who endorses Thatcher’s unsympathetic vision of the working class. She is utterly convincing down to the last gesture. Box is also excellent, both as the well-to-do Victorian travel writer, and as Marlene’s unfortunate and dispirited sister, Joyce.
Lim Davidson is highly engaging as the 13th century Japanese concubine and equally convinces as ‘Top Girls’ employee, Win. She is guileless and single-minded and mirrors Marlene’s coldness. Arundell’s portrayal of Patient Griselda is appropriately virtuous, befitting of the popular literary character, while her Nell possesses traits aligning her closely with her ‘Top Girls’ colleagues.
Treffone is strong in each guise assumed – the inarticulate and rough Dull Gret, and Marlene’s naïve and slow niece, Angie. It’s painful to contemplate Angie’s predicament in a world where Thatcher-esque views find favour. And whether she’s playing Angie’s younger friend, Kit, or the over-confident and mendacious ‘Top Girls’ client, Shona, Claire Lovering shines.
And, as Louise, Mitchell articulates precisely the issue many women face in the workplace of being overlooked by men for promotions for which she is ably qualified, and losing out to showy associates while getting on with the job. But it’s her performance as Pope Joan for which she deserves the highest praise. The details of Joan’s story are some of the most compelling moments at the dinner table, and Mitchell makes the most of the role. Her Joan is droll, sharp and genial, and provides us with some of the best laughs.
Top Girls is a must-see for those who relish the opportunity to see a fine piece of theatre performed by some of the top acting talent this country has to offer, and overseen by one of our most exciting directors. It poses questions, for both women and men, that suggest we might need to recalibrate. Perhaps, we need to think about how we bring people along with us, as we scale executive heights, and how willing we are to pay a price for career success that’s more than it’s actually worth.
TOP GIRLS – SEASON DETAILS
Presented by Sydney Theatre Company
Dates: Playing now until 24 March, 2018
Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Tickets: Box office – (02) 9250 1777 or www.sydneytheatre.com.au