Review: The Women (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Aug 11 – Sep 12, 2015
Playwright: Clare Boothe Luce
Director: Deborah Jones
Cast: Heidi Baleisis, Melissa Burgess , Kailey Higgins, Jordan Keyes-Liley, Celia Kelly, Susan M Kennedy, Jess Loudon, Emma Louise, Joy Miller, Nell Nakkan, Lauren Orrell, Alexandra Plim, Jade Potts, Eleanor Ryan, Annie Schofield, Helen Stuart , Vola Vandere, Sandy Velini
Photography © Bob Seary

Theatre review
The play first appeared in 1936, with film versions following in 1939 and in 2008. Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women features a big roster of characters, all female, but it does not fit conveniently into notions of feminism. Arriving several years before the first World War, the play embraces life in the post-Great Depression era, reflecting no concern for big social issues of the day. Girls grew up to become heterosexual wives, and success was measured by her ability to keep a happy home. By today’s standards, the stakes in the play are incredibly low, but Boothe Luce’s exaggerations of domestic upheaval remains amusing, even though much of its regressive politics are undoubtedly irritating, notwithstanding its many outspoken and bold characters.

Direction by Deborah Jones pays homage to films and stars of the era, with outlandish performances and vaudeville humour pitched at an ideal where bigger is better. It is a welcome revisit to an almost forgotten style of theatre that proves to be unexpectedly refreshing and often very funny indeed. The production is not completely successful at bringing clarity to all depictions of characters and narratives, but every sequence is entertaining, with impressive power from a cast that is determined to play hard.

The very enthusiastic Jessica Loudon is Sylvia Fowler, a shallow and narcissistic troublemaker who fans every flame only to feign agony when lives are burnt to ashes. Loudon’s brand of brazen sass is a seductive combination of Mae West and Lucille Ball, and her persistently vibrant presence is an infectious one, which grabs our attention and demands that we engage in the party, of which she is the scintillating life of. Also outstanding is Helen Stuart who plays Mary Haines, the jilted misérables. It is not a particularly attractive role, but the actor brings grace and a beautiful authenticity to her depiction of heartbreak, desperation and betrayal that can only be met with empathy. Her focus needs greater tenacity, but she makes us believe, and understand, the far-flung world of privilege that she inhabits. Jade Potts plays a smaller role but leaves an excellent impression with a charming portrayal of a feisty and intelligent young girl.

It must be remarked upon that although the production makes the wise decision of not casting black women in the roles of servants, actors who are not of Caucasian appearance, are noticeably absent from the very large group of 18. We must celebrate a production that features talented women of all ages and sizes, but monoethnicity at this particular juncture of time and space, is an uncomfortable issue that requires attention.

In The Women, characters are split into madonnas and whores, and all of them are defined against unseen men who wield control over their emotions and destinies. We have, thankfully, evolved far enough to be able to recognise its many archaic and disappointing representations of womanhood, but the production needs to acknowledge more distinctly, this distance created by feminist developments over the decades, for a more meaningful approach to the text, and potentially, for greater comic effect. We have travelled a great distance from “there’s only one tragedy for a woman; losing her man!” of Boothe Luce’s script, and although it is certainly true that social equity remains a struggle, we can at least be grateful to be able to quote instead, the immortal Joan Crawford’s words in Mommie Dearest, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.”