Confident variety, Phillip Mann

Love Knots
Vivienne Plumb, $16.95
ISBN 0 9583393 1 7

Front Women
Lorae Parry, $16.95
ISBN 0 473 02171 4

Lorae Parry, $14.95
ISBN 0 958 339309

The Case of Katherine Mansfield 
Cathy Downes, $16.95
ISBN 0 958 339333

Ophelia Thinks Harder
Jean Betts and W Shakespeare, $14.95
ISBN 0 958 33932 5
All published by Women’s Play Press.

Apart from the fact that all these plays are written by women, they are distinguished more by their theatrical diversity than by any simple concurrence of themes. That said, there are common themes which link these plays, such as concern for the status of women in a world that remains, by and large, controlled by men. Or a critique of social roles, nowhere seen more clearly than in the clash between the demands of a career and the demands of home. One detects also a preoccupation with the way that society bears down on women, demanding conformity to certain role models, whether intellectual, social or sexual.

These are overt themes (and they have their parallel in other literary forms) but at reading’s end it is the variety of theatrical means used to make them manifest, the range of dramatic voices one hears, the complexity of the dramaturgy and the confident expressive language that most impresses.

Love Knots is a delightful, whimsical, complex play which does not lend itself to easy analysis. The occasion is the funeral of Mumma and the play centres on the way three daughters, Blossom, Linnie and Lou, respond to this event. The main character, Blossom, having escaped to Australia to pursue her own life, has now returned and faces her guilt, sadness and deep questions about what she has made of her life. She hopes to inherit money to help her continue life as a painter. The other two sisters are enduring their own rites of passage. Linnie, the eldest is contemplating leaving her husband Murray because he opposes her career as a teacher. She needs the money from the sale of the house to assist her achieve freedom. Lou meanwhile, who has looked after the mother and who is hooked into new age healing, has the rights to the house and plans to start an artichoke farm.

So far, so good and if I left it at that you might imagine an earnest piece of social realism in which we could all find reflections of ourselves. Not so. The play delights in extravagant stagecraft which one critic described as “magic realism”. Occasionally Blossom wears green or yellow sunglasses and immediately the stage is bathed in that colour as we see though Blossom’s eyes. Blossom is bewitched by the past and digs up the garden in an attempt to find a doll that was buried with her pet dog. As dawn breaks she talks to herself.

Blossom: … I imagined then that if you walk out you leave everything behind, But … a scent or a colour can fire off the pictures. You get a feeling and then suddenly you’re transported back there in your mind. It’s the language of love, love being the cruel ambiguous beast it is …

As Blossom talks, Mumma comes down to rest on the fence. She is wearing all her fancy underwear. Her face is made up but she is trying to put on more rouge with a pocket mirror. Mumma is an angel now. Her wings are enormous. (p47)

The play shifts easily from terse realistic dialogue to a gentle lyricism. The text is mercifully free of didacticism and allows us to find our own way and discover our own meanings, centred on this sad and comic occasion. The play’s evocation of the power of the past to hold us, of nostalgia for the clarity of childhood when the world seemed bright and clear, is especially poignant and shows Vivienne Plumb to have a powerful dramatic talent and plenty to say.

In terms of dramaturgy and social message, the contrast between Plumb’s writing and the plays of Lorae Parry could not be greater. Lorae Parry is a woman with a mission and that is to celebrate homosexual love — especially between women — and to expose the narrowness of those who would oppose that love.

In Frontwomen, first performed in 1988, that message rather dominates the medium. Frontwomen describes the painful emotional journey two women make in discovering their love for one another. Fredrika Ross is a successful television presenter for programmes which examine significant topical questions. Rather by chance she meets Stephanie Saint-John — a wife and mother but, most important, a woman who is moving beyond these personae to discover her own voice and deep identity.

Fredrika’s sexual preference is already decided by the opening of the play — though it is not expressly disclosed until later — and for her lies the pain and frustration of seeing her career destroyed when the tabloid press sensationalises her relationship with Stephanie. In some ways Stephanie’s journey is harder for she begins the play as a woman who, if not exactly happy, is at least confirmed in her heterosexual role. The change which she passes through involves leaving her son and her husband, her home and all that goes with it, as well as undertaking a re-evaluation of herself and her sexual identity.

While the action of the play moves quickly and one is intrigued by the story, one is too often aware of the playwright coercing the action to make her point. The characterisation, especially of the men, is thin. The husband for example tells his son that he “can’t remember” whether he slept with Stephanie before they were married. What a dork! one thinks, and this is of course the playwright’s intention, but the price in cridibility is high. Or perhaps Derek is just being a bit embarassed before his son, one wonders. But no, a few moments later he again confesses he “can’t remember” what it was like the first time he made love — and that amounts to clinical amnesia.

Occasionally the dialogue between the women drips with innuendo, especially as they skirt round the question of their mutual attraction.

Freddie: Do you have a curfew at midnight or something?

Steph: Not exactly. I just turn into a pumpkin.

Freddie (laughs): Ah! I’ve always been very partial to pumpkin. Don’t tell me your husband raises the drawbridge.

Steph: But of course. I’ll probably have to swim the moat.

Freddie: Which do you prefer? Backstroke or breaststroke? (p23)

To give them their due, they are both a bit drunk in this scene and in any case the language of love rarely bears scrutiny in the cold light of critical day. But one has to admire Lorae Parry, for she has taken on the challenge of showing two decent people finding a way to express their mutual and growing attraction within the confines of one short scene. How much easier if one of them had been the calculating predator and the other the unsuspecting innocent victim. But no. These people are intelligent and sensitive just as the men are, by and large, crass and cruel — and that is the coercion of the dramatist.

Cracks, which was first presented in 1994, tells the story of a feisty young working class woman in Sydney who sings in a sleazy karaoke bar at night and works in a factory making television knobs during the day. Her name is Cracks which is, we are told, short for Maxine.

In something of a repeat of the plot of Frontwomen, Cracks, who is “not really into men”, falls for her friend Pinky who is heterosexual, has a child and is also heavily into drugs. They get caught when they try to return money that Cracks has stolen from work. Finally, after serving nine months in prison, Cracks, with regret, leaves Pinkie behind, stranded in her drugs, while she moves on to some future more independent life, “travelling alone”.

Behind this play lies the enigmatic figure of Charlotte Badger. This nineteenth-century convict -turned-pirate seized a ship called Venus at Port Dalrymple, stole supplies and then sailed over the Tasman to New Zealand where she set down at Rangihoua bay in the Bay of Islands. After which she vanished from history. Charlotte is a kind of role model for Cracks — a woman who, despite adversity, pioneers her own course. She is what Cracks aspires to be.

The vitality of this play is evident from the first line of dialogue: “Turn that flaming radio off!” yells Rita, Cracks’s mother, over the sound of Maryanne Faithfull singing the Ballad of Lucy Jordan while Cracks mimes, in karaoke fashion, the words and music. Thereafter the pace hardly lets up. Cracks in contrast to say Freddie or Steph, is not laid back but rather full of a pent up, unconventional energy which finds its expression in tart wit, one-liners and irony.

The theatrical texture of the play is rendered complex and interesting by the repeated references, in song and in dialogue, to the sea and hence freedom. This is the presence of the mysterious Charlotte Badger.

I can well understand why audiences found this play so appealing. It is witty and yet filled with pathos. The characters by and large have dimensions beyond their sexual roles and this complexity means that Cracks’ love for Pinkie is both more interesting and believable.

Still, it is noticeable that the only male characters mentioned in the text or present in the action are an abusive brute of a father, a voyeuristic boss and a sad latin lover who tries to rape Cracks. This weakens the play in my eyes for, no matter how good the cause or how strong the passion, it can never be served by creating characters of straw.

What depth of pain would we have seen had (say) Derek in Frontwomen been just an ordinary guy, not greatly exciting but not insensitive either. And what is served, beyond an agenda, by having Romanov in Cracks suddenly become a rapist? I look forward to the day when Lorae Parry writes about homosexual love in a profoundly celebratory way without at the same time feeling this need to denigrate her male characters. Alternatively, if she wants to attack the savagery in men, let her do so in a thorough and deep way, not through stereotypes.

The Case of Katherine Mansfield by Cathy Downes shifts away from the structured realism of Parry’s plays to a purely theatrical universe where time and place are malleable. The actor takes us into the sensibility of that most celebrated and troubled New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield, exploring the wildness of her spirit and the dark imaginings and fears which accompanied the onset of her disease.

There is something of tragedy about this, for we know the outcome and are powerless to prevent it, we are aware of the waste which can never be redeemed and we admire a spirit which struggles to be true to its best imaginings (and furious feelings) despite the coarse realities of life … and death.

The Case of Katherine Mansfield has been shaped by performance. It has the grace and economy which comes when the silent emotional work of the actor, manifest in gesture and glance, pause and pace, confronts the structured prose of a text — the one informing and illuminating the other. One can see this in the stage directions.

Mansfield notices her story, The Doll’s House in the notebook

Katherine: The Doll’s House..

Mansfield crosses with the notebook to the isolated seat and sits, placing the coat over her knees like a rug. When she announces the title of the story again, her energy is restored and the lights change to enclose her in warm lamplight

Katherine (reading): The Doll’s House. When dear old Mrs Hay …(p29)

The New Zealand Listener reviewer captured this quality exactly when stating simply: “A powerfully executed work of art.”

Every word in this play was written by Mansfield but the selection and ordering have been the work of Cathy Downes who also performed the piece. The play has many moods so that the personality of Mansfield is allowed to shine out in all its contradictions.

Katherine: And I, leaning out of my window, alone, peering into the gloom, am seized by a desire for everything that is hidden and forbidden. I want the night to come and kiss me with her hot mouth and lead me through an amethyst twilight to the place of the white gardenia. (p3)

Katherine: Here then is a little summary of what I need. Power, wealth and freedom. It is the hopelessly insipid doctrine that love is the only thing in the world, taught, hammered into women from generation to generation, which hampers us so cruelly. (p5)

And so the play goes on.

However, beneath the revelations of her tempestuous life, her thoughtful ponderings on art and fiction and the readings from her stories there is a perceptible movement akin to a tide, a movement that is irresistible. Gradually one comes to feel that Katherine is aware that she has only a few years of life and this gives every moment a certain urgency.

Her “cough” is a constant companion, imagined as a big wild dog that follows her at all times. Her thoughts dwell more and more on suffering and sacrifice and the demands of art. An elegiac tone becomes insistent.

Katherine: I must try to write simply, fully, freely, from my heart. Quietly, caring nothing for success or failure, but just going on. (p29)

This carries through to what is, I believe, the greatest dramatic achievement of this play and that is the single entire reading of the story The Doll’s House. Located near the end of the play, the actor’s performance becomes simple while the artistry of Mansfield is affirmed even as the shadows grow round her. The story, The Doll’s House, is filled with a grave humanity and pathos. It serves a similar dramatic function to the threnody at the end of a Greek tragedy. It slows things down and lets us consider the events and examine our feelings — only here the lamentation is for a talent cut short too soon.

The play ends (except for a few lines) with the voice of John Middleton Murry giving a more or less factual account of Mansfield’s death. We see the events with the clarity of our imagination. Again one is reminded of Greek theatre where the messenger so often simply narrates what he has seen.

Murry speaking: She was seized by a fit of coughing. I took her arm and helped her into the room. No sooner were we inside than the cough became a paroxysm. Suddenly a great rush of blood poured from her mouth… (p38)

Not much more is required after this, just a gradual fade to black, while the actor stares at the audience.

So, from a play deeply respectful of a writer’s work we move to one which is hugely, splendidly, audaciously disrespectful: Ophelia Thinks Harder by Jean Betts (after Shakespeare).

So far in this review of plays I have resisted commenting on the actual stage performance of those works that I have seen, concentrating rather on the texts. But now I must change tack. When I saw Ophelia Thinks Harder as part of the WOPPA festival in 1993, I was disappointed. The problem was not so much with the acting as with the production which seemed rushed and busy as well as being presented at such a loud level that the subtlety of the text was frequently sacrificed. Well, Jean Betts, the author, was the director — and she is a fine director — but I wish she’d handed over to someone else in this instance. Thus I approached the text with some apprehension, hoping that it would not prove as indigestible as the production.

And it didn’t. Rarely have I encountered such wit, satire and simple outrage between the covers of one book. Jean Betts has taken the play Hamlet, bent its characters to her will, shuffled its lines, bonked its plot and created a new work which is on one level a ferociously funny pastiche of Hamlet and on another a hilariously savage indictment of male pomposity, oppression, sexism and simple phallocentric stuffiness. The whole is conducted with an elegant seriousness in which you never know quite what will happen next or who will appear next. The Virgin Mary flits through the play as does St Joan — not to mention three witches. But, to stay with the text, here is Ophelia in pensive mood, having begun speaking to herself with the immortal words “To be or not to be”. She continues:

Ophelia: There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life.

For who would put up with the whips, the scorns, the pain, the pangs, the cramps, the sweats, the spurns, the burdens the agonies of life (p28)

Often the text simply slides away from Shakespeare to reveal a female perception of the world — one which undercuts Hamlet’s sublime ponderings.

In more serious vein Ophelia at one point finds herself discussing the history of virginity with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who are actually women in drag). Ophelia is confused by the need to reconcile contradictory messages about womanhood — whether to remain a virgin and hence pure or become a woman and be forever damned. This may seem somewhat abstract but the real question is “What do men actually want?”

Ophelia: But Virginity, virginity, what does it mean?

R & G pull themselves together and become very serious, grand and mystic.

Guildenstern: Virginity means — Independence. Being true to the self.

Ophelia: True to the self?

Rosencrantz: A true Virgin is a woman who chooses her own direction…

And later, when discussing how virginity can be lost.

Ophelia: … if the hymen means nothing, how does such a woman lose her virginity?

Rosencrantz: When she betrays her true self…

Guildenstern: When she submits to others against her will.

Rosencrantz: Follows rules she does not believe in…

Guildenstern: Contorts her behaviour to please other people…

Rosencrantz: Allows others to bully her — to own her…

Guildenstern: Then she has betrayed herself. Her soul is polluted. She is defiled. She is no longer a Virgin.

Pause. Ophelia horrified.

Ophelia: Gentlemen. I am not a Virgin! Oh my god, I’m not a Virgin. I’m not a Virgin! What am I to do?

Which elicits the advice:

Guildenstern: This above all: to thine own self be true;

and it must follow as the night the day,

thou canst not then be false to anyone!

Thus Polonius’s lines of good advice to Laertes in Act I Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s play are subverted to serve Bett’s needs — and how well they fit!

The finest satire is reserved for Hamlet who epitomises the male ego at its worst. He struts through the play like Cock o’ the Walk and finally finds himself caught in Gertrude’s noose. The famous scene in which Hamlet berates his mother for marrying Claudius is given a glorious reversal. Gertrude justifies her action in marrying Claudius while showing Hamlet to be a “pathetic, dithering, puritanical, evil-tempered, arrogant little squirt”. “Oh yes,” she says as Hamlet squirms in disgust,

Gertrude: Claudius and I take our clothes off, heave our misshaped, wrinkly carcasses into bed and HAVE SEX… We make love in the bed, on the floor, in the bath, in the garden, on the beach, on the banqueting table and we are inconsiderate enough not to give a shit what drivelling adolescents like you think. There. (She releases him) (p54)

Deconstructed scenes like this have a liberating effect. While honouring Shakespeare in one way, they reveal underlying assumptions and allow new possibilities to emerge. Certainly, since Betts collared him, Hamlet will never be the same to me again.

The ending of Ophelia Thinks Harder is worthy of Stoppard for its theatrical deftness. Ophelia, now disguised as a man and sporting the name Osric, joins the travelling players. Sizing her up with a shrewd theatrical eye, Player 4 wonders if she would make a good woman.

Ophelia: Hmm. Would I make a good woman? I’m not sure what that involves, exactly. But I’m prepared to try. (p73)

Granted that Ophelia Thinks Harder requires a reasonable knowledge of Hamlet for its full appreciation, the text is written with such energy and intelligence that it rises far above pastiche and becomes a powerful original statement in its own right. I hope it is performed again — and soon. I would like to see it on the school syllabus if only to show how literature, with a bit of imaginative adaptation, can be made to serve new ends. And if I hear ghostly laughter I can imagine Shakespeare in the wings, for he well knew how to take and old plot and shape it into new life.

Phillip Mann is Associate Professor of Theatre and Film at Victoria University.

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