Originally an RSC commission in 2013, Alice Birch was asked, along with three other female writers, to respond to the provocation that well behaved women seldom make history.
The result is a taut 70 minute play where women claw out of preconceived notions of womanhood and find themselves reformed on stage with blurred edges. They are difficult to define but, as a simple understanding, could be classed at the very least as complicated, angry and powerful. Birch’s script is unapologetic in its ambition of claiming new spaces and shapes for women.
Each scene, enacted on a plain black stage begins with a calm start and ends in an explosive finish. The initial scenes are easy to comprehend, but as Birch grows more furious and bold in her exploration of revolt against assumed female subordination, the scenes become slippery. Birch sculpts her scenes to explore language and makes each word culpable as playing a part in positioning individuals in a societal hierarchy. Initially concerned with gender, Birch’s play starts by dissecting a man’s lustful offering to have sex with a women, who in turn engulfs his patriarchal ‘gift’ and swallows it with her own desire to conquer and colonise the body. Revolt presents moments where characters are able to articulate their wants with considered words that delineate exact meaning.
The cast is made up of four actors, only one of which is a man. He becomes a canvas for revolt to be splattered against. The women seem well-mannered at the start, using overly precise diction to articulate Birch’s fury. As the play builds, this precision begins to unravel slightly and threads of anger and madness begin to fray, ultimately misshaping the women forever. There is uniformity across the female cast with this, in each of the characters they play. Perhaps the anomaly in this is a scene where an employee very calmly tells her employer that she will no longer be working Mondays. Irritated by her boss’s attempts to distract her from her ask, the employee remains constant in her basic request and projects a sense of logic that is hard to ignore. Measured and assured, her revolt is a quiet one.
This is not true of the rest. The tone of Erica Whyman’s production builds and becomes more intense. Like listening to speech underwater, by the end the exact words of each actor become indecipherable as each actor layers their protest on top of their neighbour and we’re met with a sea of angry sounds.
The last note of the play is a cynical one and the audience are not proffered any buffering from this. This is Birch’s gift to us and we must now consider what it means.
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again is playing at Shoreditch Town Hall until Saturday 17 September. For tickets and further information see the Shoreditch Town Hall website.
Photo: Richard Lakos