“Revolt, as I understand it – psychic revolt, analytic revolt, artistic revolt – refers to a permanent state of questioning, of transformations, an endless probing of appearances.” – Julia Kristeva, Revolt, She Said.
Alice Birch’s new play, written for the RSC’s Midsummer Mischief festival and performed at Latitude last weekend, was triggered by a provocation: “well-behaved women rarely make history”. She responded with another: “revolt”. Built around calls to question, challenge and transform everyday patriarchy, it’s a stunningly impassioned piece that refuses to answer its own, vital questions or perform the revolution for us as we sit passively by.
“Revolutionise the language (invert it),” the play begins, the instruction projected in white text onto a stark, black screen. The cast – three women and one man – are dispersed on chairs across the stage, and suddenly the man and a woman are mid-conversation. They’re talking about sex. He’s saying all the things he wants to do “to” her, and she’s refusing to be the grammatical or sexual object in his constructions. It’s an instantly get-able and fiercely funny opener – “I’ll screw you”, he insists, to which she shouts “no, I’ll spanner you!” – hooking the audience in for darker, more complex material.
Because lexical intercourse isn’t the only subject under fire. “Revolutionise the world (do not marry),” continues the next fragment, as a woman argues with her boyfriend over whether marriage is a romantic gesture or outdated property contract. “Revolutionise the work” is next, as another argues about flexible working hours and the pay gap with her boss. Then “Revolutionise the body.” These key tenets of the second wave feel depressingly bang up-to-date, staged with urgent minimalism and often subversive humour. Birch’s writing manages to be idiosyncratically personal, profoundly political and playfully poetic, with a thread of elusive motifs woven throughout: watermelons, nightingales, bluebells.
The collapse of the established structure – the vignettes begin to run into each other, to contradict the text on the screen, to take on absurd narrative twists – is as thrilling as it is disorienting. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again culminates in a scene that captures the defiantly polyphonic (mostly online) culture of debate today, as the personal and political combine and mutate, the profound explodes with the mundane, then is shouted down. It’s astonishing.
That said, the play’s angle is arguably from quite a specific viewpoint – watching it immediately after Clean Break’s Meal Ticket, a show that stages three women’s experiences of poverty, sex work, drugs and incarceration, I was struck by the privilege of the play’s ethics; whether you take your partner’s surname is unlikely to be high on the list of problems for society’s most marginalised women. It also tends to tackle sexism in isolation, rather than (you knew this was coming) intersectionally; there’s little probing of how gender interacts with class, or race, or sexuality and so on. There’s no obligation to do that, of course – this is a piece of theatre, not a Laurie Penny article – but it’s worth pointing out. I hope the production will run on somewhere else, for its unapologetic formal aggression, and its insistence on continual debate and transformation, this is a play that deserves – and demands – a life after Latitude.
Revolt. She said. Revolt again. was on at Latitude festival.