This review was first published on Daily Review on 12 January 2018

Writer Norman Mailer was no Milo Yiannopoulos. But his attack on the women’s movement in a 1971 issue of Harper’s Magazine (which became the book The Prisoner of Sex) led Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem to no-platform themselves from a panel Mailer hosted on ‘Women’s Liberation’ at New York’s Town Hall the same year. Mailer settled for slugging it out with Germaine Greer, then on a triumphant world tour publicising The Female Eunuch, Jill Johnston, a writer and dance reviewer for The Village Voice, Diana Trilling, introduced by Mailer as ‘our foremost lady critic’, and Jacqueline Ceballos, New York president of the National Organisation for Women.

The event (minus Ceballos and a couple of hours) is recreated at this year’s Sydney Festival, and this production, by New York’s Wooster Group, reminds us that this was a time when the productive powers of sex, rather than the destructive powers of sex, were being furiously debated.

Mailer is played by both Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, as if the writer’s enormous presence couldn’t be conveyed by one actor. ‘He’ introduces Greer by Life Magazine’s descriptor – ‘the saucy feminist even men like’. But Maura Tierney’s version of Greer is less the glowing Amazon from down under whose book had just been an international sensation, and more the simmering sexuality of the precise Cambridge scholar on the lecture circuit.

The Female Eunuch had argued that women’s liberation had to begin with sexual liberation, with orgasms and ecstasy: ‘the cunt must come into its own’, she wrote. Mailer, in contrast, wanted to put sex back in its patriarchal box, arguing we needed to celebrate the base male desire to fill the female with semen, whose primary role is to mate and reproduce. Unsurprisingly, the event was as bawdy as it was brutal: at one point Mailer offers to “take out my modest little Jewish dick and put it on the table and we can all spit and laugh”. Trilling, dressed like a candidate for president of the country women’s association and played with great verisimilitude by male actor Greg Mehrten, takes on Greer’s codification of the right kind of orgasm: “I could hope we would also be free to have such orgasms as, in our individual complexities, we happen to be capable of.”

But this production, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, really belongs to Kate Valk’s Jill Johnston, whose incantatory speeches call up the rhythms of the Beats and Greenwich Village and extol the transformative power of lesbian love: “We’re getting to the bottom of women lib, we’re going down on women’s lib, until all women are lesbians there will be no true political revolution”. It’s too much for Mailer, who scolds her for running over time in one of the play’s many funny moments: “I wanna talk to you about lesbianism god dammit, we’ll take a vote”.

The actors on stage are doubled by their real-life counterparts in a screen above – the footage is from a 1979 documentary of the event, Town Bloody Hall. The performers’ ventriloquism of their 1971 twins is both mesmerising and unsettling. At one point actors turn the panel they are seated at and the screen so the figures from 1971 and on the stage in 2018 merge. Along with stretches of dialogue that sound like they could have been uttered this morning, it underscores the ties between then and now. 1971’s Greer appears to predict today’s #metoo: “Is it possible that the way of the masculine artist in our society is strewn with the husks of people worn out and dried out by his ego?”

We’re reminded of Greer’s gift for the crushing one-liner: “Whatever it is they’re asking for, honey, it’s not for you,” she tells one male interlocutor. But the play is also a reminder of the intellectual verve of the era, a time when Freud and social theory about the origins of the nuclear family are effortlessly debated in public forums on feminism. Today the same panel would include a celebrity actor from the latest subscription TV miniseries, while even the rare feminist intellectual who ventures out into the public sphere is more likely to talk about her own experiences of, say, female friendship than Freud or Firestone. The politics and poetic polemic of the 1970s have been usurped by a more personal tone, one that leads us to be easily injured and afraid of tough debate now. It’s a joy then to see two very different thinkers like Greer and Johnston high five each other at the end of their speeches.

Three and a half stars

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