History's sisters compare notes

Actress Danielle Cormack is starring in Top Girls. Photo /  Babiche Martens.
Actress Danielle Cormack is starring in Top Girls. Photo / Babiche Martens.

Picture the scene: A wine bar in London, circa 1982, where powerbrokers in power suits are quaffing champagne and getting high on - among other things - Margaret Thatcher's brand of neoliberalism.

They don't know it yet, but they're about to spawn a whole new culture with its own acronym. The Yuppie (Young Urban Professional) is set to emerge. Into the wine bar come a group of women out for a girls' night. Anything the boys can do the girls can do better ... right?

But these aren't your average women. There's Pope Joan, from the 13th century, Dull Gret, from the painting Dulle Griet by Pieter Breughel, Japanese concubine Lady Nijo, Patient Griselda, who features in The Canterbury Tales, and Victorian lady traveller Isabella Bird.

The wine flows; the women start to talk, getting louder and more candid as the evening wears on. They discuss men and sex, the price of achievement and the sacrifices women make, then they come to the ever-thorny issue of whether it is possible for women to combine a successful career with a happy family.

And so begins Caryl Churchill's much-lauded play Top Girls, which Silo Theatre brings to Auckland's Q Theatre this month.

Silo lured Danielle Cormack back from Australia to play high-flying career girl Marlene, whose promotion to the top job in an employment agency is the catalyst for the extravagant opening scene. But it soon emerges that Marlene, like these women from history, enjoys success at a high personal cost.

As well as Cormack, Top Girls stars Bronwyn Bradley, Rima Te Wiata, Nancy Brunning, Rachel Forman, Abigail Greenwood and Sophie Hambleton. All, apart from Cormack, play more than one role.

"And for once, it's got nothing to do with budgets," says Te Wiata. "It's a necessary device because there are parallels between the historical and contemporary characters we play. Some of their fates and predicaments are the same, even though they come from wildly different eras."

So the more things change, the more they stay the same?

"I think most people will recognise the characters because they and the situations they are in are very real," says Bradley. "This play sets up a very real conversation with the audience, so it's very exciting to play."

The dinner party is a raucous and provocative opening, with the women talking over one another, fighting for their voices and opinions to be heard and noted. Cormack likens the necessity to deliver the lines "bang on time" as akin to the importance of maintaining the pauses in a Harold Pinter play. "Everything in this play is done for a reason."

Ask Cormack whether she likes Marlene and she pauses briefly.

"I admire her tenacity and the vision that she strikes out with. She acts with absolute conviction and I admire anyone who acts with conviction, but it doesn't mean they're right or you have to agree with them."

Bradley, who plays Marlene's dour sister Joyce, says the two characters may appear to be polar opposites but they share a certain sense of doggedness; that their way is right and the other is wrong.

Given the multitude of contemporary issues Top Girls flings up - gender politics, the pain and pleasure of sex, the price of achievement and different styles of feminism - it's a wonder they get around to rehearsing rather than sitting and debating, sharing experiences and generally putting the world to rights.

But, as Te Wiata says, there's a show to perform so there comes a point where they have to stop the soul-searching and get down to rehearsing.

Funnily enough, Top Girls isn't actually all that contemporary. It debuted in 1982 when Churchill, known for her feminist and socialist beliefs, turned her attention to pondering the legacy of then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Churchill was particularly interested in the contrasts and conflicts between British socialism and American feminism.

She saw the former as being more concerned with collective group gain; the latter as more focused on independent success and wealth.

Ironically titled, Top Girls was a cutting dissection of what it means to be a modern woman and, in turn, the implications it has for the sisterhood as a whole.

Guardian critic Michael Billington aptly summed up its continued relevance when, reviewing a revival production in 2011, he wrote: "It would be nice to think that Caryl Churchill's 1982 play, written during the rise of Thatcherism, now looks dated. In fact, it seems terrifyingly topical."

All of which director Shane Bosher wholeheartedly agrees with. Bosher says a number of Silo's most recent productions have been male-driven and he wanted a play which would allow him to gather together a female cast and continue the company's aim of having a conversation with its audience.

"I actually think this play is more relevant than when it was first staged. There's so much pressure on women these days to go out and have successful careers, to be the perfect wives and mothers, to look good and to be the right weight, to have a beautiful house.

"I think it must be quite overwhelming."

Performance

What: Top Girls

Where and when: Q Theatre, February 23-March 18Danielle Cormack in Top Girls.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 31 Aug 2014 16:44:09 Processing Time: 700ms