You are expected to behave…
Use the right words
Don’t break the rules
This play is not well behaved
Alice Birch examines the language, behaviour and forces that shape women in the 21st century and asks what’s stopping us from doing something truly radical to change them.
This was a powerful piece of theatre from the RSC, tackling the theme of how language is used in our society to oppress women, asking where feminism has gone and questioning how we have ended up in the situation we’re in.
It was entirely uncompromising from the very start – beginning with a conversation about sex of such brutal frankness that several parents swiftly ushered their children out of the auditorium. The point of it… to expose the language used around sex. A man describes to a women in great detail how much he would like to make love to her; passionately monologues about her breasts, her skin, his desire for her. Pretty standard stuff, surely every woman would love to be spoken to like that? But she challenges him, ‘don’t you want to make love with me?’ she asks, ‘How about I take you inside me? How about I put myself inside you?’ And then we see the unravelling, the distaste, the disempowerment of the man who expects his woman to be a vessel that he must possess – however unconsciously, however much he loves her. The point is how ingrained in our language these ideas are, and what it means to challenge them.
As the show continues the themes are no less brutal – the first half of the piece consists of some well structured duologues examining the implicit possession of marriage and the expectation that it must be what’s desired by women. In fact, a proposal of marriage was likened to the suggestion of becoming suicide bombers and doing over the local Sainsbury’s, such was this particular woman’s revulsion at the thought.
The theme of rape was also examined, with a woman suggesting that perhaps the only weapon a woman has against rape is to offer herself up at all times, waiting to be possessed. It is a dark and brutal image that leaves its imprint on the mind.
All the cast (3 women and one man) were strong performers and played with commitment and energy, especially as the play descends into the chaos of revolution at the end. Because isn’t that what’s needed? the play cries out. Where has the work of our feminist sisters in the 1970s gone, how have we ended up with 4 year old boys worrying about cellulite and their thigh-gaps? There is no happy ending, we end up with an image of the verdant world we thought was being built, turning out to be a dusty, barren wasteland. And we are sent out into the Suffolk sunshine with the final words of the play ringing in our ears… ‘Who knew life could be so awful.’