Review: How To Defend Yourself (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 11 – Sep 3, 2022
Playwright: Liliana Padilla
Director: Claudia Barrie
Cast: Georgia Anderson, Madeline Marie Dona, Brittany Santariga, Jessica Spies, Jessica Paterson, Michael Cameron, Saro Lepejian
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review

Two men raped a woman, at an American university campus one night. The student body convulses in response, trying to do its best to make sense of the violence, but finds itself unable to come to terms, with life after the abhorrent episode. In Liliana Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself, we see a group of young people congregating at a dojo, ostensibly taking classes for self-defence, but is in fact finding solace in one another, and hoping for emotional emancipation, following the devastating attack on an institution that had hitherto felt safe and secure.

Padilla’s 2019 play is appropriately cynical and pessimistic, written at a time when the meanings of gender (and its injustices) are rapidly collapsing. We watch characters in the show desperately finding ways to mend their individual lives, within a system that clearly needs an overhaul. Thankfully there is surprising humour to be found throughout the piece, although the production seems hesitant about its implementation. Directed by Claudia Barrie, How to Defend Yourself is certainly well-intentioned, but the way in which its discussions are conducted, often feels surface and perfunctory. A lack of vulnerability, prevents us from reaching deeper into the issues at hand.

Chemistry between cast members too, are insufficiently vigorous, for a story that relies on explosive revelations and overwhelming poignancy. There are strong performances to be found, from the likes of Brittany Santariga and Jessica Spies, who bring emotional intensity, and from Georgia Anderson and Saro Lepejian, with their captivating idiosyncrasies, but not all are able to connect meaningfully with one another. Perhaps it is that disjointed communication, that is at the core of our social problems. No matter how fervent we are, it is an inability to find consensus that hinders progress.

Set design by Soham Apte, along with Emily Brayshaw’s costumes, transport us to the world of American colleges, with accuracy and concision. Lights by Saint Clair have a tendency to be overly enthusiastic, but are effective in bringing visual variety to the imagery that we encounter. Sound design by Samantha Cheng on the other hand, is conservatively rendered but able to manufacture surges of energy when required.

Much of sexual violence springs from our conceptions of gender; what it means to be a man, a woman, and how the two are supposed to converge. We teach our young to take these notions as gospel, and then watch as they relate to everything from their assigned vantage points, as they place themselves in positions of power and subjugation accordingly. We expound to women that the world is kind, and that people nurture one another, while we drill into men that the world is for their taking, and that fortune favours the brave.

To undo that indoctrination, not just for individuals, but for entire societies, has proven a long and arduous road. We are however, in a moment of acceleration, as we awaken from false binaries, and begin to reshape our understanding of being, and of communities. As gender begins to disintegrate, we are forced to reckon with all that it touches, which in essence, is all and everything. We can no longer tolerate prejudice of any kind, which means that we must no longer allow barriers and disadvantage of any description to remain. How we accomplish this pipe dream however is, as Padilla indicates in How to Defend Yourself, quite the mystery.