“What struck most powerfully, though, was the collective soul of their performance”
Four women, dressed in black, stand on a bare stage and for the space of an hour, deliver a passionate diatribe against the twin evils of sexism and racism visited on them daily. They are fierce, they are angry, they are eloquent, and they are young black women.
The experiences discussed here: patronising treatment in white-run offices, dreadful dates with white men who think the women are ‘exotic’, weird assertions of their sexuality and their personalities by black men, were powerfully articulated. They aren’t experiences that I’ve had, but the power and the responsibility of theatre is to make an audience feel things they’ve never previously felt, things that are the experiences of others articulated and embodied by performers. This quartet accomplished that in style. They used wonderfully arranged soul standards, sung a cappella, as leaven in this slightly preachy, torrential statement of their woes. Aretha Franklin songs have only sounded better when sung by Aretha, and their rendition was wonderful.
What struck most powerfully, though, was the collective soul of their performance: lines shared and restated, songs harmonised, movement synchronised, four actors sharing a space and a moment to make a collective statement. They even sighed in harmony. At the end, the audience leapt to their feet in spontaneous standing applause. So many standing ovations are woefully unearned, but this one felt right, like a coming together of actors and an audience that shared their experience. That was quite a moment. Would it have been a better play with less polemic? Very possibly. Would it have spoken so powerfully to the audience if it had been more measured? Almost certainly not.
“ultimately, it felt like a surface creation, which failed to realise its deeper ambitions”
Andy Warhol’s 1967 erotic film ‘I, A Man’ shows the central male character in a series of sexual encounters with eight different women, including Valerie Solanas and Nico. Valerie was the founder of radical feminist organisation SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men) and later went on to attempt to assassinate Warhol, and Nico was the German model and singer famed for her high profile rock ‘n’ roll affairs, as well as for her work with Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground. On the surface, the two women couldn’t be more different: one a working-class butch lesbian from New Jersey, the other a leggy blonde heterosexual European, and yet, as Polly Wiseman’s play points out, they shared more than their surface would initially suggest. Wiseman’s play throws the two women together in an imagined green room situation during the filming of ‘I, A Man’ and uses it as a contemporary feminist call to arms. The final image of the piece is a projection of the question, ‘What do you want to change in the world for women?’, and we are invited to pin our thoughts to a noticeboard, or to tweet them, @SCUM2019.
It’s a great premise, and an admirable cause, and there is clearly an appetite for this kind of work. Hundreds of women were on their feet night after night hearing the clarion call from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia, ‘‘If they try to burn you, may your fire be stronger than theirs SO YOU CAN BURN THE WHOLE F*CKING HOUSE DOWN’. Unfortunately, in this case, the touch paper just didn’t light. The play felt hampered by specificity; by the very particular accents required of the performers, and, too, by the notoriousness of the period. The obvious audience enjoyment of Wiseman’s impersonation of Nico’s infamous deadpan German drawl, added to the smattering of 60s rock icon name-checks – Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed – ultimately detracted from the piece’s political power. Similarly, much of the quickfire dialogue came across as glib and parodic. When Nico says, ‘Sunshine depresses me. There is too much expectation’, and Valerie voices the line, ‘Men’ll pay big to shoot the shit with a cunning linguist’, these broad brushstrokes limit them as women and take away from their humanity, which, in turn, makes it difficult for us to take them seriously. It also seemed a strange decision to characterise Valerie with such relentless cheerfulness. The women are different enough without this added extra thrown in. Another odd choice was the one to have Valerie mention her death by overdose. When Wiseman herself tells us – in Valerie’s potted biography printed in the script – that she died of pneumonia, what does this change do, other than falsely play into the already-problematic late-60s drug narrative that is touched on here?
The show was well designed – credit here to Sally Hardcastle (stage design) and particularly to Nathan Evans and Sophie Bailey for their excellent sound and video work – but ultimately, it felt like a surface creation, which failed to realise its deeper ambitions. Despite the cabaret moments, and the occasional use of direct address, Sophie Olivia’s Valerie and Polly Wiseman’s Nico never fully reached out and touched us from that stage, which is a shame, because, in reality, those women’s lives most definitely did.