These reviews were first published on Daily Review on 12 January 2018 (Riot review here)
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.
If the Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair appeals so will Emmet Kirwan’s opening to RIOT – a passionate and rapid fire monologue about teen pregnancy, alienation and the need for socialist revolution. If the voice of the Beats can still be heard in his delivery, Kirwan also looks back to the Irish poets and then back across the Atlantic again to African-American rap. But Kirwan is just the opening salvo and the intermittent conscience of this Irish variety show, playing at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent. This is the circus, and the circus is sexy these days, as one character remarks. And so we meet Ronan Brady – a former Irish football star whose post-injury rehabilitation exercises led him to acrobatics, and then to the circus where he added a striptease to the routine.
They are joined by night’s mistress of the ring, Panti Bliss, who arrives on stage as if she is here to personally MC the after party to the marriage equality triumph. Fielding a call from Lyle Shelton, she swats him away (‘two tops don’t make a bottom’). Her monologues and audience interactions are ribald, and balanced by her heartfelt tale of a young boy who wanted to grow up to be Farrah Fuckin’ Fawcett. Her ‘love each other and be kind in this huge spinning world’ message serves as a softer coda after Kirwan’s sharper politics.
Throughout, performers keep reminding us of Emma Goldman’s warning that a revolution without dancing is not worth joining. The Lords of Strut, Famous Seamus and SeanTastic, pull us along on a tour through ’80s pop culture. Famous Seamus (Cian Kinsella) holds SeanTastic (Cormac Mohally) aloft as Morten Harket’s falsetto pours from the speakers: ‘I’lllll beeee gone…’. The crowd has fallen in love with a-ha’s Take on Me all over again.
The acts keep coming, including the Irish dancing duo Deirdre Griffin and Philip Connaughton. Their heads are submerged in giant pink balls like an amniotic sack – this is a queer show, so they can represent whatever you want – boobs, balls or giant pimples that burst and become raggedy skirts in the act’s finale, if that appeals. The church is taken on – there’s a chaotic scene involving cling warp, Jesus and a very blasphemous Australian-summer scene of a whipping by pool noodles. A four-person choir, meanwhile, sounds like it has descended from some sort of queer heaven and holds the disparate show together.
It’s an exhilarating 90 minutes, full of light and moments of dark illuminated by iPhone torches and hard hitting politics. But it builds to a coherent message: that in a world full of hating we must keep loving, and an almost Germaine Greer-esque command that in the face of a world that keeps fucking us over, we must never stop joyfully fucking. Even in the dark, there’s pockets full of glitter. You’ll walk out feeling like your heart has been taken out and replaced by a mirrored disco ball pulsating to Annie Lennox’s voice soothing your troubled soul: ‘Sweet dreams are made of this.’