This review was first published on Daily Review on 18 January 2018
My mother used to tell me a story about women who would come into the emergency departments where she worked as a nurse. Complaining of agonising stomach pains, staff would have to break the news they were in labour and would soon be giving birth. The story always made me think about the extraordinary lengths women go to in order to avoid looking at the blindingly obvious thing that was happening to their lives, to their bodies.
There’s a key moment in the first act of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (directed by Imara Savage for the Sydney Theatre Company) that reminded me of my mother’s story. Marlene (Helen Thomson), all ’80s shoulder pads and electric blue suit, is throwing a dinner party to celebrate her promotion at a London recruitment company. The famous women from history and art she has invited to join the toast include a ninth-century woman who disguised herself as a man to become Pope. As the Frascati bottles empty, Pope Joan (Heather Mitchell) describes the pains that kept coming closer together as she rode a horse during a religious procession. When a baby slides out onto the road, Pope Joan and child are stoned to death.
The other characters listen but, in between ordering steak or Waldorf salad, they are busy bringing up their own dark tales. There is Lady Nijo (Michelle Lim Davidson) a concubine to the Japanese Emperor, Isabelle Bird (Kate Box) a Victorian traveller, and a Chaucer character Griselda (Paula Arundell) a peasant girl who became a nobleman’s wife. Then there’s Gret (Contessa Treffone), a figure from a Bruegel’s painting who led an army of women through hell to fight the devils who’d hurt them (does that ring any bells?).
Each woman is celebrated and strong in her own way, but as they describe the horrors they endured, they each justify the men and ideologies they lived under as ‘just the way things were’. Lady Nijo gushes about the fine silks she wore and says that it was fine that the Emperor had sex with her when she was 14 because he “owned her” (and that’s also why she had to give up her first child). Griselda’s husband sends her children away too, but she insists he is a good man. And fearless Isabelle internalises her own patriarchal world, insisting on her husband’s superior qualities.
It’s easier for these women not to look too deeply at the world that betrayed them. “I didn’t want to pay attention, it was easier to do nothing”, Pope Joan tells no one in particular. It’s a gripping scene of revelations, non-sequiturs and characters speaking over each other, in turn oblivious to each other and appalled at the compromises and justifications their dinner companions made. Apart from Gret, that is. She spends most of the time back to the audience, squireling food away, barely talking until the end of the scene when tells a tells a story of taking revenge on the “bastards” who murdered her son.
Thomson is terrific here as Marlene, the alpha female boss holding the party together, in turn boosting the others and impatient with their compliance. “We’ve all come a long way”, she insists. But Marlene has given up a child too, as we learn in the next scenes. She’s also blindly swallowed her own share of questionable values on her way to the top, as we discover when the play shifts to her office and she can barely contain her contempt for Jeanine (Paula Arundell again) who wants to have a job and marriage and children.
All the actors from the first act’s dream sequence return to play contemporary characters that variously contrast with or parallel their earlier character. Adventurous Isabelle returns as housewife Mrs Kidd, who comes to Marlene’s office to tell her she should give up her promotion for the sake of her husband who deserves it more. The silent waitress from the first act (Claire Lovering) returns as ambitious lying job seeker Shona. Lady Nijo returns as a career woman (but she’s also a mistress again). Pope Joan becomes Louise, another job seeker who’s given her life to a male-dominated workplace and feels “she passes for a man”. Subaltern Gret returns as Angie, the daughter Marlene relinquished to her sister and who is in remedial class at school.
In putting these women of such different times, places, abilities and ideologies alongside each other, Churchill questions any notion of a universal sisterhood or essential womanhood. And in having the same actor playing multiple characters with such different fortunes, each character shaped by her own time and place, she mocks Marlene’s celebration of the individual’s ability to rise above their circumstances to become a top girl. And what is sisterhood anyway, when Marlene’s success relies on her own working class sister to raise her odd child?
Like the Pope’s pregnancy, the women lie to each other and to themselves to make some sense of a world that doesn’t work for them. Marlene’s version of a top girl is really just Thatcherism and neoliberalism in feminism’s name. Or worse. Her sister Joyce tells her “I suppose you would have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Got a lot done, Hitlerina”.
But the unacknowledged and repressed has a tendency to return and, like Pope Joan’s baby, Angie appears unexpectedly at Marlene’s ordered office, in eerie circumstances that suggest all is not quite right with Angie (and what has she done with Joyce?). All the performances are strong, but Treffone is particularly terrific, playing Angie so guilelessly transparent it’s almost painful to watch. A stand out too is Box as Joyce, the put-upon sister whose skin has worn both thick and thin.
The smart thing about this production is that we don’t see Marlene as simply evil or unredeemable, as the Stones’ Sympathy For the Devil coming at the end of act one seems to suggest (the song also seems to be a comment on the women’s misplaced identification with the men who exploited them). Marlene has that will to power that, whether wielded by women or men, can hold us all in complicity. Angie is drawn to her aunt/mother Marlene because she’s so “special”.
Churchill wrote the play in 1982, a time when the gains of second wave feminism were settling in, but it was also during the first years of Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership. I was still in high school when my mother took me to see the Melbourne Theatre Company’s version in 1984. I was listening to a young Madonna and performing in an all-girl school production of The Crucible. Many critics have rightly cited Churchill’s socialist politics, and particularly Top Girls, as a trenchant critique of Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” individualism. But as a young girl, seeing all these strong figures on stage – including a young rising star called Pamela Rabe as Pope Joan – the politics mostly washed over me. I remember thinking of it as celebration of girl power that was gathering strength and peaking in the 90s. In this year’s STC version, I see different things. Now the play reads to me like a searing radical feminist critique of the misogyny that is expressed in a fear of women, their sexuality, and the children they give birth to and that can’t be incorporated into structures of power.
I listened particularly to Lady Nijo, a thirteenth concubine who becomes pregnant to her boss – an emperor who leads a country – describing how she was banished to the countryside. And I wondered whether her story is really different from an office affair that is currently threatens to derail the deputy Prime Minister and has seen another pregnant woman fleeing to the country. And when a woman leads an avenging female army through hell to pay back the bastards who’ve done them over, I can’t help but think of #MeToo. The ‘8os office scenes, and excellent costumes expertly evoke the 90s and Princess Diana and the film 9 to 5, but Top Girls is brim full of contemporary resonance.
The play which starts with a dream sequence ends with a nightmare, as Angie wakes from her sleep and a single world: “Frightening”. Any hope of change, as ever, seems to lie with the Angies, the Grets: those who have no stake in the system, and therefore nothing left to lose.