Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 12 – Mar 24, 2018
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Paula Arundell, Kate Box, Michelle Lim Davidson, Claire Lovering, Heather Mitchell, Helen Thomson, Contessa Treffone
Image by Brett Boardman
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls exposes our discomfort with stories that talk of societal problems, without the service of convenient villains. We have a hard time thinking about structures that have proven themselves unacceptable, without being able to place blame on individuals or archetypes. Churchill encourages us instead, to examine the ways in which those systems insist on our acquiescence at every turn, making us complicit some or all of the time, often keeping us ignorant of our participation in the damage being caused.
Angie has two role models at home, each representing dichotomous extremes of how we perceive the economy, society and our womanhood. It is Thatcher’s Britain in 1982, and the world seems to have split into simple distinctions of certain people deserving privilege, and others who are not. Angie thinks that emulating her aunt, Marlene, would deliver a more rewarding life, but what she sees, is only the surface of how things operate. She buys into the notion that success looks a certain way, and to attain it, one only needs to take certain steps of action. Churchill exposes, through Angie’s naivety, and in extremely subtle ways, the lies that are sold to us, and that we perpetuate every day.
Director Imara Savage’s faithful presentation of Churchill’s feminist declarations, keeps Top Girls as unconventional as ever. Its non-linearity and contradictory complexities seem to make for a show that is eternally refreshing. It confronts how we discuss gender, through a sustained reliance on symbolism over declarative language, for a more accurate depiction of the insidious nature of capitalistic corruption and deprivation. David Fleischer’s functional, unobtrusive set design allows little distraction from the important matters at hand.
The production succeeds in using what is in many ways a difficult text, to create a captivating work of theatre. The intellectual stimulation it provides, is challenging and unrelenting, but ultimately gratifying. Even though statements in the plot are made with a sense of ambiguity, our interpretations are never permitted to diverge from its political position. Actor Kate Box is particularly effective as Angie’s mother, Joyce, a woman defined by failure, who Box argues for, with great dignity and zeal.
It is a very impressive ensemble that takes the stage, featuring more than a few moments of brilliance from each performer. The luminous Helen Thomson brings excellent irony to Marlene’s fragile image of the woman who has it all, assisted wonderfully by Renée Mulder’s incisive costume designs and Lauren A. Proietti’s humorous wigs. Claire Lovering and Heather Mitchell are both memorably acerbic with their comedy, while Paula Arundell and Michelle Lim Davidson bring nuanced gravitas to the complicated souls that they inhabit. The youthful innocence of Angie is astutely portrayed by Contessa Treffone who proves herself a compelling presence, simultaneously measured and effervescent.
2018 is an exciting time to embrace feminism, but as long as opposition forces exist, implementing acts of feminism will always be difficult. To identify, attack and destroy unjust structures that are pervasive and normalised, is a task unspeakably enormous. To take on the interrogation and diminishment of things believed to be incontrovertibly true, is thankless to say the least, but of course, the best of us will persist. Tolerating subjugation may be easier for many, but for others, the compromise to integrity is unbearable.