A young woman pelts into the space. ‘I’ve absolutely fucking cracked it’, she cries. A young man darts in after her, turns to the audience nearest him and insists that he is never aroused by porn. Amidst the woman’s continuing celebratory shouts, the man turns and, like an enthusiastic market seller touting for business, calls out across the room, ‘Hymens! Unruptured hymens for sale’. The woman then starts to explain why she’s so excited, but swears and scarpers offstage as if she’s forgotten something.
So began my privileged, early viewing of an extract from this week’s Oxford production of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
I was treated to a further twenty frenetic and exhilarating minutes, in which four actors (three female, one male) repeatedly dive-bombed the stage, each giving voice to numerous characters in a mind-boggling variety of scenarios. Chaos, you might think. But, if so, it’s of the most entertaining, provocative and affecting sort that I’ve yet encountered. The cast carefully delineate every character with sensitivity, never falling into caricature. And in any case, I’m informed that most other scenes follow a more obviously discernible plot. Concerned that this might, in fact, inhibit the cast’s breath-taking energy, I’m reassured that all the scenes are performed with equal panache, each as if an impromptu improvisation in response to a ‘revolutionary’ manifesto-speak slogan, projected above the performance space.
The scene that I saw, the penultimate in the play, was entitled ‘GALVANISE’. Who was to be galvanised and to what end remained unclear, but, rather than shoddy, this seemed to me bracingly honest. Without a doubt, the whole play’s prevailing emphasis is that the relationship between the sexes remains far from equal. In the section that I was shown an employer struggles to praise an able female worker (‘fiercely intelligent – a little on the aggressive side’), while a range of scenarios involving trespass and theft highlight the offensive incongruity that many today still find it easier to respect an individual’s property rights than a woman’s right to control her own body. The limited contextual details for each fragmentary interjection contributed to a pervasive pessimism: when a girl, aged 12, protests against marrying her rapist are we in a grim Atwoodian vision of the future, or in present-day Columbia?
In the concluding monologue to the scene, delivered with heart-aching beauty and sincerity by Lucy Miles, Birch inveighs against any possible pride that we might harbour in the position of woman in our society, but accuses us of having failed to enhance the rich legacy of earlier generations: ‘we stopped watching and checking and nurturing the thought to become the action at some point’. Many of the preceding exchanges reinforce this overall assessment: the production of ‘STOP BEING SEXIST’ t-shirts as mere ‘Merchandise’ suggests a dangerous hollowness at the heart of ‘popular’ feminism; a little boy’s anxiety about his ‘cellulite’ seems to question how many of society’s ills should actually be laid at the door of sexism; and I’d challenge anyone not to feel confused and disconcerted by a child’s concern for the bleeding feet of a convicted rapist, serving a sentence of community service. Directors, Emma Howlett and Lauren Tavriger accentuate this tendency to refuse neat and simple answers with their decision to stage their production in a traverse configuration, affording different parts of their audience literally conflicting perspectives.
Nothing in the play from what I witnessed seemed to proffer any remedy for the persistence of sexism. And, yet, on leaving, I didn’t feel frustrated or disheartened, but energised. The true wonder of this piece – and especially of this production – is that it confronts its demanding subject matter with such energy, such enthusiasm and, it should be stressed, such humour that an audience cannot help but feel positive and encouraged for the future.
When first performed in 2014 Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again was quickly hailed as feminist rallying cry for today’s generation. I have little doubt that in this student production, opening on Wednesday (2nd week) at the Pilch Studio, the play will again prove an outstanding hit. But, now after the last bruising year, with the revelations of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo campaign, I can’t help but view the play more as a plea for recognition of our current parlous position than as a cry for immediate revolution. Like the woman who thought she’d ‘absolutely fucking cracked it’, we may have to think again.