Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane
July 25, 2018

“Strap in, babes. Shit’s about to get really real.”

With these words, playwright Claire Christian introduces us to her mainstage debut, Lysa and the Freeborn Dames. The world premiere of this dramatic comedy subverts and responds to Aristophanes’ classic battle of the sexes, Lysistrata, in which the titular character convinces the women of Greece to end the Peloponnesian war by refusing to have sex with their husbands or lovers until peace is negotiated. Exceptionally performed by six talented students from the QUT Creative Industries programme and four well-known industry professionals, Lysa and the Freeborn Dames tackles feminism, finding your place in the world, and fighting for what you believe in.

Tatum Mottin in Lysa and the Freeborn Dames. Photograph © Dylan Evans

In early 2017, Lysa King (portrayed with passion by Tania Vukicevic) returns to her home in rural Australia after a year away and a personal political awakening. Emboldened and inspired by the Women’s Marches she has watched unfolding across the world, Lysa stages her own protest on the eve of the War Weekender – an annual football game and the town’s biggest event of the year. But with only a few reluctant friends, an unplanned hostage, and a well-meaning policeman in attendance, it isn’t the revolution she hoped for. As the situation escalates, Lysa must put aside her self-righteousness, and face the consequences of her actions with the same conviction and steadfastness with which she has wrought them.

Reluctantly joining Lysa at her protest in the local football club are her best friends, football-loving tomboy Myra (Samantha Lush), and conservative, soon-to-be fourth generation Miss Weekender Esme (Tatum Mottin), as well as Lysa’s ex-girlfriend Peta (Clementine Anderson). Also in attendance, although imprisoned in the ex-bomb-shelter locker room by Lysa, is local football hero Grant (Jackson Bannister), and investigating the disturbance at the football club is ex-classmate, now a policeman, Ken (Morgan Francis). Anderson and Francis are particularly notable in their excellent modulation of emotion, and it is wonderful to see actual young artists playing the roles of these six young people with such power and authenticity.

Directed by Sanja Simić and staged effectively in the Roundhouse Theatre, Lysa and the Freeborn Dames addresses ideas of legacy, young people making their politics active, and navigating the difficult space of young adulthood, beginning to push back against what you know or have been taught. This is particularly evident in Lysa’s father’s threat to tell the parents of the other young people about their behaviour, and their automatic deference and politeness to him as an adult figure, although this too is eventually subverted.

Hsiao-Ling Tang, Barbara Lowing and Roxanne McDonald. Photograph © Dylan Evans

Lysa has a strained relationship with her father (Hugh Parker) and although a mother and brother are mentioned in the dialogue they do not appear as characters in the work. This lack of a mother, or at least a familial female role model, seems an unusual choice in a work that deals so heavily with themes of women’s legacies.

Lysa and the Freeborn Dames tells the timeless tale of youthful conviction, and of returning home after time away to find that things feel smaller, or smaller-minded. Christian has written characters that we all recognise, from the town gossip to the insufferable football hero. Everyone has a self-righteous friend or relative like Lysa, especially in the era of Facebook rants, shareable petitions, and internet ‘activism’. As the Chorus tells the audience repeatedly: “this place is every place”.

The plot barely resembles Aristophanes’ work, but uses and subverts the core themes of protest, temptation, and the power of women. It employs the same forms of crass humour in parts and, in being queer and in expressing her disgust for every man in the town, Lysa takes on the same role as Lysistrata in not being tempted by or interested in sex with men, while the women around her are subject to these desires and their consequent insecurities.

The work uses flashback scenes, giving the audience more information and context each time, and several scenes play out in Lysa’s imagination, to be paralleled against the reality directly afterward. As much as it is about anger and action, Lysa and the Freeborn Dames is also a contemplation on activism, the individual and inherently flawed people at the heart of any revolution, and respecting one another as people in the continuing fight towards equality. With some forgivably cliché plot twists, as well as a dry wit and pockets of sit-com-esque humour, the work also deals with questions of allyship, the incremental process of creating change, the realisation that our priorities are not universal, and that mutual respect is needed to truly move forward.

Barbara Lowing, Hsiao-Ling Tan, Roxanne McDonald and Tania Vukicevic. Photograph © Dylan Evans

The Greek chorus – Barbara Lowing, Hsiao-Ling Tang, and Roxanne McDonald – serve the traditional purpose of commenting on the dramatic action, but also each deliver a powerful and moving monologue throughout the piece, seemingly outside the role of the Chorus and more in line with the idea of legacy, and stories that have come before. The symbolism of many women speaking with one voice in the Chorus, wearing pink felt crowns and the now-iconic pussy hats, is significant, and the monologues deal with the glorification and internalisation of obligatory servitude for women; the realities, guilt, and insecurities of motherhood; and recovering from a broken heart to be better than before.

Lysa and the Freeborn Dames’ intensity and emotion is handled with equal parts grace and panache by the six young actors as well as the four professionals. Lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, sound design by Guy Webster, and set and costume design by Anthony Spinaze bring the environment of the rural football club to life, create boundaries between reality and the world of the Chorus, and more clearly establish the characters and their interests.

Lysa and the Freeborn Dames is as funny as it is ferocious and leaves a lasting impression about the importance of doing things with love as well as fury, and the hope of creating lasting change through small things done by everyone, every day.

 Lysa and the Freeborn Dames plays at the Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane until August 11