Sunday, 29 January 2012

Thank God It’s (Not) a Girl: The Women of "The Boys" & "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll"


Belvoir’s production of Ray Lawler’s seminal Australian play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (now transfered to the Melbourne Theatre Company), and Griffin Theatre’s production of Gordon Graham’s The Boys both have a lot to say about men dominating women in awful ways.

“The Doll” is 57 years old this year. The Boys is celebrating its 21st birthday in 2012. And for two plays separated by decades and a generation or two, both feel utterly relevant to today. Which is very unfortunate. As much as things can change, sometimes they stay the same.

What thrilled me about both productions – and both plays – is the strength and complexity of the female characters. The male characters act as catalysts that drive the women’s stories. And while neither play shys away from criticising all the characters’ choices, both are very much of the view that we can all be a victim of our circumstances.

Helen Thompson as Pearl and Eloise Winestock as Bubba

Take “The Doll”. Both Olive and Pearl seem to be happy with their lives, unadorned by husbands. Olive is perfectly fine to have Roo visit for five months of the year, during the cane-cutting lay-off. She does not need or want him to be here all year around. Pearl, on the other hand, doesn’t feel right stepping in as replacement for Barney’s Nancy – who has gone off and got married that year. But she also seems free enough to choose to have some fun, while Roo and Barney are in town. She is also the first to spot trouble when it’s coming, because unlike Olive, she has a better perspective on things – having been married and now raising a child.

The women want their fantasies to come (or stay) true. The men want these semi-permanent/mostly casual relationships to remain exactly as they are. As soon as these notions are challenged - and their desires in conflict, the cracks begin to appear.

Louisa Mignone as Jackie, Cheree Cassidy as Michelle
and Eryn Jean Norville as Nola

In The Boys, the women seem more trapped by their relationships. Michelle is upset she has been separated from Brett for so long; his hiatus from the relationship – not cane-cutting, but a stint in jail. Nola has found herself pregnant to Stevie, happy to simply be in a relationship where she’s not bashed. And Sandra Sprague, the boys’ mother, is trapped by her “motherin’ instincts”. Jackie, girlfriend to middle brother Glenn, takes the Pearl-esque role here: she can see trouble coming, though her sense of certainty is slowly chipped away.

The boys feel like victims of a society that has let them down – and this translates, abhorrently, into them taking control and getting what they feel they are "owed" by the women in their lives. And they take their hatred out on a random woman, in a random act of shocking violence.

The women in their lives, want to believe the best of their boys. Sandra loves them to a fault, truly believing she’s instilled in them enough respect for women that they couldn’t possibly be involved in such a heinous crime. The girlfriends, well, as much as they want to stand by their men, they are all faced with mounting evidence that the boys’ hatred for them has ended in the rape and savage murder of another woman.

The two plays approach the subject of the male characters in different ways. While they are all physically threatening – the casting of both shows is superb for this – “The Doll” rarely relies on Roo or Barney’s physicality to dominate the women in their lives. The tragedy of the earlier play is the inexorable slide toward none of these characters expectations being met; Roo decides he wants to settle down and Olive basically has a nervous breakdown at the thought of it. The tragedy of The Boys is that while the women can see the harm these men are doing to them, they aren’t sure if that can change – seen most clearly in regard to the next generation, embodied in the birth of Nola and Stevie’s child.

“The Doll” also has a next-generation marker, in the role of Olive’s neighbour, Bubba. Bubba wants to live a life just like, Olive; though the play suggests strongly that this might not be something to aspire to, it doesn’t hold up marriage as the better option. Though the play doesn’t end in a particularly positive way for any of the characters, Bubba’s future is left wide open.

As, of course, is the future of Nola and Stevie’s son – a child about which Nola says, “Thank God it’s not a girl.” For as much as she has grown to see the men in her life are driven by a base instinct to degrade, humiliate and perhaps even murder women, she’d rather be in control of teaching a boy to be not like that than to bring a girl into a world where she may well be a victim if she’s good looking or cop it if she’s not good looking enough. 

The sentiment is heartbreaking, but as the other women agree to support Nola’s raising the child to not be like “the boys”, a nihilistic ending is avoided – but only just. And Sandra Sprague, well, she can only see the baby’s father in him – and love her boys as only a mother could.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and The Boys are major works in the history of Australian theatre. Their newest productions are bold and exciting; Doll’s three hours fly by, and The Boys’ keeps its audience riveted for its tension-filled two acts.

Kudos to director Neil Armfield for reviving a classic in such an energetic way – and props to the MTC for transfering a Belvoir production of a Melbourne icon to its home town. Helen Thompson’s Pearl steals the show, though none of the cast should be overlooked – particlarly Steve Le Marquand and Robyn Nevin – the play is a balancing act from beginning to end.

Sam Strong’s production of The Boys is a tough watch; a visceral experience to rival my experience of The Hayloft Project’s Thyestes – which is also playing as part of the Sydney Festival. Using the intimate Stables Theatre space, we are witnesses to these destructive men and these tough, no-nonsense women. The action is bold, the music is loud and unsettling, the performances burned into my mind. Josh McConville’s Brett is particularly terrifying; and though the play never, ever condones his actions, it allows the character to speak his mind and – once in a moment with his mother – show a tiny glimpse of the terror behind his eyes.

The women of The Boys are the absolute key to making the show work, and I basically have to list them all – Jeanette Cronin’s slightly comic, mainly controlling Sandra; Cheree Cassidy’s Michelle, who evolves from a toughened long-term victim-of-circumstance into a woman ready to admit she was wrong; Louisa Mignone’s Jackie – the smartest of all the women, who ever-so-subtly begins to doubt herself; and the amazing Eryn Jean Norvill, whose Nola is shackled to the Sprague’s by her child – but whose love for her kid might be the hope that was corrupted and lost in Sandra so long ago.

In the end, though, these two plays are as different from each other as they are the same. The speak from different eras and come to different conclusions - to the extent they have any answers at all. But they do give unique and complicated voices to women, which even now can be lost on stage as much as it is in life. 

Thank The Boys and "The Doll" for the girls.


Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is at The Playhouse in Melbourne until February 18, 2012.

The Boys is at the Stables Theatre in Sydney until March 3, 2012.

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