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Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again

Photo by Jasmin Simmons

House of Sand presents REVOLT. SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN, by Alice Birch, at The Old 505, Eliza St, Newtown. 2-19 May.

REVOLT. SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN, is a play by British writer, Alice Birch, written for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014. Since, she has written, amongst other things, the nominated screenplay of the 2016, William Oldroyd film, LADY MACBETH, and a prizewinning play, ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE (2017).

There is no doubt that REVOLT. SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN is a startling play both for its content and form. The content was inspired by some of The SCUM Manifesto, a radical feminist book, by Valerie Solanas (she also shot Andy Warhol), of 1968. (see LOVE AND ANGER) – in fact there is direct quotation from the book in Act Four of Ms Birch’s play :

Overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.

This is a play that attacks front-on the patriarchal construct of our society. It is intelligent, witty and contemporaneously considered. Ms Birch understands the vital importance of the contemporary need to write what she has to say and has taken great care in how she says it. Of its form, Ms Birch says that ‘REVOLT’ is about language, and one can perceive the care and poetic construct that has gone into the creation of this text.

House of Sand’s Co-Artistic Directors, Charles and Eliza Saunders (siblings), have appreciated the importance of the content in their program notes and their sense of the need to ’embrace (the) complexity and dialectic with passion and compassion.’

It is unfortunate, then, that they have not embraced the technical demands of the formal language of the text, not Directed their actors (of choice) to an aware usage of their actor’s instrument, to capture and deliver for their audience the writer’s word by word language choices, used to develop her arguments, by assisting the actor’s to the need for the technical manipulation of volume, speed and tonal range (the obvious skills of any trained actor) to achieve the written clarity of the intent offered by this meticulous writer.

The cleverness, the intricacy of the writing is exemplified right from the get-go. In the first scene of the play a husband and wife declare the sexual passion that each has for the other and their language foreplay becomes a comic deconstruct – lesson – of the kind, that ‘demonstrates’ the sexual politics of everyday vocabulary. Says He : “I want to make sex to you.” Says She: “No, you want to have sex with me.” “To you”, he says. “With you”, she says. “TO“, he insists. “With“, she guides. “With“, he capitulates, “With you.” Both, momentarily, relax. Then the ‘games’ continue.

Another part of the language dynamics of this writer is the musical rhythmic control. Any good writer is constructing a ‘musical’ score for the Actor and Director to ‘read’. In this play, in an early scene, I heard, when I was not too angry to have disengaged and still cared, Ms Birch had written, repeatedly, for one of her characters, an expression of a need beginning: “I want to ..“, then again, “I want to...”, and again, “I want to … ” while the actor carelessly, perhaps, ignorantly, kept saying, ” I wanna …” I wanna …”I wanna …” Another said, “Get outta here …” instead of “Get out of here ….” Now, in musical terms it is only the dropping of a semi-quaver of sound, at worst a full quaver, but it is collectively a re-configuration of the musical score and, thereby, the intention of the writer. It is like eliding or excising the musical deliberations/notations of Beethoven or Chopin, which, of course mis-shapes the felicity and even the intention of the score/speech by shifting the musical emphasis of the notes/words – it looses its impetus and emphasis of operative sound/word landing. Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, just two writers I revere, were fretted so much by carless Actors and Directors/Conductors of some of the productions of their plays that they took control of their texts by insisting that they Direct their own work (which is not always a good thing – for other reasons!) – they knew what word followed word and why, and the importance of their sounds and syntactical arrangement.

The actors in this production demonstrate what I call the actor’s approximate reading of the score. Worse is it, when it is accompanied by generalisations of word meaning and physical gesture. The ‘approximate’ actor/craftsman, the careless ‘generalisator’: the enemy of the playwright! The writer has spent, perhaps, a day in total time replacing that word with another – the writer knows why. A good writer would have drafted those words tirelessly to achieve what they wanted – not only for unequivocal meaning but for musical vowel length and the aspirated effort of the plosive consonants as tympani for their landed musical effect. It seems to me that this is the kind of writer Ms Birch is, too. Precise. Unequivocal.

Watching this ‘careless’ production of this very good play was like watching kindergarten children attempting to act, to play, Shakespeare, any Shakespeare – it is an agony to endure – and thank god, rarely attempted. Or, and this happens more regularly than necessarily, of a worthy amateur company when ambitiously try it out with Pinter/Albee/ Coward or Rattigan, Wilde – I mean what of the botches of David Williamson’s plays, some people believe he is foolproof, NOT SO, I warn you – one has ‘suffered’ through? Attending such productions required/requires a desperate struggle for decorum in a public space.

“This cast and creative team” says Mr and Ms Sanders in their program notes, “brought all their passion, rigour and rage to every moment. We have fought passionately and laughed outrageously in equal measure. …” If I could also believe that they had applied any rigour to their craft efforts, along with, perhaps, their intellectualisations, with either/both their voice and body, so that I could be beguiled into an understanding and belief, by subliminally being able to ‘read’ instantaneously what was going on from the offered clues of the actors, under this Direction by Mr Saunders, I would have been happier. But, no, in The Old 505, the other evening, I willed myself into a fake decorum of interested attention – despite my (craftmam’s) outrage that did not emanate from laughter of any kind. I hope they enjoyed their laughter in rehearsal. I was well past laughter as an audience member, I can assure you. I just kept thinking of the loss, the besmirching, of Ms Birch’s skill, no matter the good intentions of the House of Sand Company – a house built on sand, indeed, I conjectured.

Choices have been made on every element of this production, undoubtedly, just not very deeply interrogated ones, and certainly not ‘repeated’ ones – are these actors at all aware of  their accuracy around the vocalisations of the text, or, where their head is positioned or the length or placement of that physical gesture so as to achieve maximum communication of the writer’s intention? Or, specifically, do they know the mathematical accuracy of the chaos they bring to the third act of the play, or, is it all still an accident of fate each night? The latter, I fear. Certainly, the effect of the chaos of entrance and exit, signage or not, on the night I saw the production, was all a hit or miss affair – mostly, many bewildering misses. There has been no definitive settlement, or tiresome rehearsal  – it is hard work to repeat and repeat and repeat – of those farcical offers intended by this company. There should be method for this madness for it to tell as ‘storytelling’.

I will bet that they believe that I am being overly finicky. Some of you probably think so, too. Tell me that when I have watched greatness on stage. The great actors KNOW what they are doing with every part of their instrument, at every moment (it has become a second-nature consciousness) – it’s why they have the freedom to play in the moment of the performance, when the adrenalin kicks in and the audience makes offers for them to improvise/deal with. It’s why we pay to see them – they are experts at the craft of their profession, not ‘approximates’ or ‘generalisers’. I want a carpenter/plumber/electrician that is an expert of skill and considered judgement. It’s why we pay them. Similarly, it is what I expect of my actor. It seems to me that there is in this production of REVOLT. SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN an amateur exhibition of 75% aspiration (excitement), 20% inspiration (adrenalin fantasy) and 5% perspiration (hard work) showing in this production.

REVOLT. SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN, is a very good play ruined in effect by artists of little or no applied skill disciplines. I was so angry that my theatrical introduction to the work of Alice Birch was through this production. As I suggested with THE EFFECT experience, it might be better to read the play rather than watch this production.

One of the last lines of the play: “WHO KNEW THE WORLD COULD BE SO AWFUL.” So apt, I thought, as I applauded the actors, as generously as I could, for having a go, but I wept for the reputation of Alice Birch.

N.B. It is interesting that there is no biography offered to us in the program of the originator, the writer, Alice Birch. All the other artist are given generous ‘background’ space. It is just as interesting to see that Alice Birch has her name in the program only ONCE, on the second page under the title of her play. Not on the front page. I guess the writer is really unimportant in this production? Who or what were these Producers thinking about?