Cabaret meets sex toys in Black Swan State Theatre Company’s next two productions. The West Australian company’s 2018 season has been designed to catalyse and contribute to the big conversations and the fourth conversational ‘pairing’ this year is aptly titled “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”.
Artistic director Clare Watson’s programming plunges headlong into female representation and pleasure with two works that challenge cultural paradigms and systemic misogyny, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek.
The hysterical parlour drama In The Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play (October 24 - November 4) will be performed concurrently with the world premiere of Xenides (October 27 – November 11) a musical about Adriana Xenides, the 1980s game show hostess from Australia’s Wheel of Fortune.
“We programmed these shows to look at the representation and roles of women and the things we are and aren’t allowed to represent and talk about.” Watson says. “Vibrator Play is essentially about female pleasure and Xenides is about a woman representative of a two-dimensional, relatively silent clotheshorse. It is about giving women voice and stage time – two things we don’t always prioritise.”
If that’s not enough to generate conversation then audiences might be stimulated (pardon the pun) by an exhibition of vibrators from the early 1900s’s on display in the foyer of the State Theatre Centre.
Watson’s interest in catalysing a conversation around the topic of sexual pleasure for women stems from her early career experience teaching health education to teenagers where she encountered barriers prohibiting open discussions about sexuality.
“The conversation is so much richer than we have allowed it to be,” Watson explains. “We teach kids at school how to avoid getting pregnant and catching diseases but we don’t talk about what sex is which is about communication, about pleasure, about understanding our own bodies and identity.”
The Vibrator Play is by American playwright Sarah Ruhl who Perth audiences will know from her hilarious play The Clean House which was performed by Black Swan in 2010. The Vibrator Play is set in the Victorian era amid the early history of psychotherapy when women’s feelings were often diagnosed as an illness and erotic pleasure was biologically attributed only to men. The play takes place in Mrs Givings parlour adjacent to her husband’s medical practice. Dr Givings has invented a new electronic device for treating ‘hysteria’ in women and soon his lonely wife beings to take an interest in what goes on in the room next door.
Ruhl drew her research from Rachel Maines’ book The Technology of Orgasmwhich documents the technique of pelvic massage as a medical practise from the time of Hippocrates. With the advent of electricity mechanical devices were invented by doctors to provide pelvic massage to patients diagnosed with ‘hysteria’. Vibrators began to be marketed for home use in magazines from around 1900 (alongside the vacuum and the toaster) for their supposed health and beauty benefits. However a growing understanding of female sexual function made it impossible for mainstream society to ignore the sexual connotations and vibrators disappeared from advertising in the 1920’s.
Ruhl’s message is disguised under period costumes and laced with humour, which Watson says helps get the point across.
“Humour is the spoon full of sugar that makes the meaning more palatable. When we are laughing we are much more generously open to radical or rebellious ideas as an audience. In terms of challenging systemic misogyny we can promote more change when we do it with humour and generosity.”
Jeffrey Jay Fowler will direct a cast that stars Perth-born actress Elizabeth Blackmore (best known from her role in the drama series Vampire Diaries) as Mrs Givings with Tom Stokes (Blackmore’s husband) playing Leo Irving, one of the patients. Stuart Halusz is Dr Givings with Rebecca Davis as Annie the midwife assistant and Tarriro Mavondo as the wetnurse Elizabeth.
Jump forward 100 years to the 80’s when TV hostess Adriana Xenides was at her zenith and audiences may be surprised to find not much has changed.
“In fact we might have gone back to somewhere I don’t want to be,” Watson suggests. “Putting these two works together makes us talk about the umbilical chord of the feminist movement. It makes us take stock of where we are now, this very interesting moment with #MeToo and Weinstein. A time that is ripe for change.”
The hotly-anticipated Xenides is the second in a triptych of 80’s celebrity portraits devised by Watson, whose I Heart John McEnroe won a Green Room Award when it was premiered by Uninvited Guests in 2014. Xenides was inspired by the story of Australia’s longest serving games show hostess who Watson believes was largely misrepresented.
“If you look at old episodes of the show it is all jocular but quite derogatory. She proved seriously strong in the face of ridicule and sexual harassment for 19 years. To me that makes her a warrior.”
“Xenides was a woman who was incredibly intelligent and compassionate yet in her role as the hostess in the game show she was only ever allowed to speak at the top of the show and then the microphone was whisked away from her and she literally had to spin the letters to other people’s words. There was no authorship from her at all.”
Image of Xenides (model Chanell Moso photo credit Cameron Etchells)
The life of Xenides is operatic in scale, a story that draws on many tropes: rags to riches, the migrant’s journey, the fairytale princess and the tragic icon. Rather than trying sort the fact from the myth Watson decided to present multiple versions of the truth in a production she devised in collaboration with the cast. Research and interviews with those who knew Xenides provided a blueprint which was fleshed out by improvisations during rehearsals. The actors Laila Bano Rind, Adriane Daff, Harriet O’Shannessy and Katherine Tonkin function as unreliable narrators offering different perspectives on the truth.
Their mix of hilarious and tender stories are couched within a cabaret soundtrack performed live by electronic power-pop group The Twoks. The songs include a mash-up of eighties tunes, operatic excerpts from Tosca and some original numbers by Twoks’ violinist and drummer Xani Kolac.
“We are putting Xenides on a pedestal but there is also a meta-theatrical layer of four women talking about the representation of women on stage and doing things we’ve never seen women do on stage before. If people in the audience leave and talk about someone who suffered, who offered us a lot culturally, and someone who has been remembered that will be very satisfying.”
By Rosalind Appleby
As first appeared in The Guardian, September 2018.
Image: Artistic Director Clare Watson. Photo by Richard Hatherly.