★★★★½ A brutal but ultimately touching portrait of femininity from the lowest dregs of the underclasses.

Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne
May 7, 2016

We’ve all seen women like the three protagonists of Patricia Cornelius’s unapologetically frank play, SHIT, currently showing an encore season at Fortyfivedownstairs hot off the heels of its sold-out premiere run. They are the kind of women we see slumped in the street mid-afternoon with an open tinny in their hand, glaring with a defiant, threatening intensity at anyone who dares to make a sideways glance. The type who scream blue-murder at strangers on the tram, their faces permanently contorted into a hateful, thuggish sneer, weathered beyond their years by alcohol, drugs and violence. 

We may not readily admit to being part of a class hierarchy in our enlightened, modern society, but we’re complicit in it nonetheless through our feelings towards these people. We hate or pity them, and we do it openly. Whether or not we are willing to admit it, deep down we consider them a blight on our cosmopolitan lifestyle, a drain on our resources, an undesirable element we want gone. And we feel this way, rightly or wrongly, because innately we believe that we are better than them.

Women such as these would never be found in the socially affluent arena of the theatre, and yet it is precisely because of this that Cornelius has brought this study of femininity from the lowest dregs of the underclasses to the stage. Three women, Billy (Nicci Wilks), Sam (Peta Brady) and Bobby (Sarah Ward), trade insults and expletive-riddled anacdotes, comparing notes with a throw-away mundanity on the decades of misogyny and abuse that made them who they are. Their attitudes are appalling, their resignation to this horrifying reality absolute, but using a combination of stylistically heightened monologues and pitch-black humour, Cornelius dares to peel away their hardened façades to shine a revealing light on the awful truths of their existence. 

Through the prism of the theatre, this trio are remade as urban Amazons, who use their grubby vocabulary, zeal for disorder and warped comradery as an arsenal to protect themselves in a world that doesn’t give a damn about them. Occasionally a glimmer of humanity appears as they reveal secret yearnings or fleeting, optimistic fantasies, only to be mercilessly shouted down by each other, put back in their place with a sobering dose of harsh realism. Sometimes the reprimands are disturbingly aggressive. When Bobby launches into a tirade about hating her female body, with its superfluous curves and unnecessary appendages, the other two attack her with unrestrained force, stripping her naked from the waist down so she (and the audience) is confronted with the anatomical reality of her sex.

This all sounds relentlessly depressing, but Cornelius’s brilliance is in connecting the audience to these characters in an emotionally simpatico way. As we learn more of their bleak pasts, we begin to see a subtle but entirely relatable logic underpinning their actions. Even when they savagely assault a random passer-by, this violence isn’t so much senseless as it is desensitised, the result of years of desperate survival and psychological corrosion. These characters are incredibly self-aware, conscious of how society has failed them, and it becomes all too clear, in a way that is both touching and tragic, that these women pretend not to care because they care too much. 

Cornelius draws these women with precision and authenticity, perfectly capturing the colloquial intricacies of their slang. There are also moments of a more rigorous dialect to provide emotional waypoints, framing a particular mentality with a formative moment from these characters’ pasts. Wilks, Brady and Ward have honed their repartee with such finesse that this text unspools with a completely riveting momentum. In the intimate space of Fortyfivedownstairs, even the slightest hesitance from these actors would be jarring, but the conviction displayed in these performances is 100-per-cent. 

Cornelius’s long-term collaborator, director Susie Dee, has taken a similar tack to the playwright, offering a no-holds-barred straight delivery punctuated by moments of a more heightened stylism. Isolated gestures and mannerisms, such as provocative leering, finger clicks or brutish stamps, are assembled as carefully synchronised choreography. Not every interlude of this more precise blocking works succinctly, but the implication, that these actions are almost tribal, part of a crude toolkit for urban survival, is still easily understood. 

Marg Horwell’s set – a concrete-grey wall breached by three equally sized portals showing a featureless black space beyond – offers another level of narrative guidance for the audience. The spaces between each of the three openings help to denote how close or how isolated the characters feel, while the broken glimpses we catch when these women occasionally retreat into the darkness makes a pointed reference to our distanced, middle-class experience of this type of person in the real world. Rachel Burke’s lighting evokes the dim sodium-orange glow, or the white florescent glare of streetlamps, firmly planting the action in its urban context.

The level of synergy between each of this production’s constituent elements is astonishingly accomplished, but it’s the blazing, uncompromising tenacity of Cornelius’s text that provides the foundation for this superbly realised show. Despite their disgutsing traits, by the end of this powerful hour of theatre I found myself deeply moved by these three characters. There are brief but seismic moments, where the strength of their bond reveals something genuinely profound. While their lives may be filled with brutality, self-hatred and crushing, ugly misery, they still have the capacity for love, and as mangled and corrupted as it may be, it is no less sincere. Does this make their actions acceptable or even forgivable? Cornelius doesn’t try to foist any moral epiphanies on us, but the fact that we might be prompted to question this at all makes SHIT a truly important work. 

Fortyfivedownstairs present Dee and Cornelius’ SHIT, until May 18.


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