Talkin’ about a revolution et al

The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Christ Church Milton

March 2 – 26

In a rare occurrence, the cast of The Curator’s Australian premiere production of “The Revolutionists” receives audience applause before any members have even spoken a word. It comes, appropriately, in recognition of the show’s bold beginning, which sees its four characters bursting down a fashion runway. While our eyes follow them strutting their way to the end, another appears in waiting, wisely allowing us time to appreciate the vivid aesthetic being exhibited.

It is here where we meet the story’s four fierce females. Three are real life figures: forgotten playwright and feminist advocate Olympe de Gouges (Lisa Hickey) who was executed for seditious behaviour based on the contents of her unfinished play about the former Queen of France Marie Antoinette, idealistic assassin Charlotte Corday (Lauren Roche) and the infamous embattled queen Marie Antoinette herself (Amanda McErlean). The fourth, a freedom fighter called Marianne Angelle (Asabi Goodman) on ‘political reconnaissance’ from the island nation of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), is the creation of playwright Lauren Gunderson.

Although the traverse staging with the audience seated on both sides is something Brisbane audiences have previously experienced in Queensland Theatre’s “An Octoroon”, Milton’s Christ Church creates a unique intimacy that allows us to become immersed in recognition of the stunning, rich visuals that are created by make-up and costumes (Costume Designer and Director Michael Beh). Lush pins and red mix-patterned ruffled and frilled costumery conveys a clear sense of opulence befitting the play’s French Revolution setting.

The work, which was first produced in 2015, is really a play about a playwright writing a play, the playwright being Olympe de Gouges. And it is at Olympe’s Parisian office where we observe the women’s salons about their philosophies and ambitions. It begins with a visit from her abolitionist friend Marianne, who wants Olympe to write pamphlets to assist in the fight against colonial oppression. As the two talk about their revolutionary belief that a better world is possible in which women have agency over their own lives, they are joined by Charlotte, who is in search of a writer to help craft her final words for the scaffold, anticipated as part of her plan to murder the awful fundamentalist Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the Reign of Terror.

Sparks fly when Marie enters, leading to some quick bickersome banter between the four who are all obviously self-aware of their own varied struggles. Though sometimes a little laboured (meaning that Act One is retrospectively a little long comparative to its taut Act Two), there is a clear celebration of words, writing and the theatre, along with reminder of women’s importance in history. As the characters converse about themselves and how they desire to be remembered, the script gifts us many quote-worthy catch phrases and meta-theatre mentions, especially in Olympe’s rebuked determination to write a witty and wise satiric ‘voice of the revolution’ play rather than a hyperbolic musical about the French Revolution, ‘because nobody wants that’. Subtle and not-so theatre and historical references add to the show’s huge humour. And though things darken with Act Two short, sharp shocks of violence as the women face their fates with varying degrees of defiance, laughs are still afforded in some small moments.

Attention to detail adds to the dynamism of the experience. French revolutionary motifs such as aristocratic wigs are adorned by the production’s tech crew and ushers. Framed posters line the walls with the women’s essential quotes and the pre-show soundtrack empowers with ‘I’m Every Woman’ type sentiments. Within the production too, reappropriated modern songs give each woman a musical motif, most notably in Marie’s ‘Feeling Good’ reassurance and Charlotte’s ‘So What’ declaration of rock star status.

The strong and empowering characters are all distinct and are exemplified to their full passionate potential by a talented cast of women who easily moderate the show’s movements towards melodrama and farce. And it is clear that they are loving what they are doing. Hickey gives her all to anchor things as Olympe. McErlean brings an unanticipated real-person compassion to crazy-ass but sometimes profound ribbon-loving queen-no-longer Marie Antoinette whose dialogue comes complete with its own stage directions. This is especially evident in her one-on-one conversations with sassy Marianne, which come across more like a Real Housewives sort of tea spill about husbands and children.In contrast to Marie’s charming entitlement, is Marianne’s angry championing, which Goodman delivers with delicious passion before settling in to contrasting talk about how much she misses her catch of a husband, a fellow revolutionary still fighting back at home. Roche, meanwhile, invigorates the angry Charlotte Corday with an intense youthful energy.

‘It’s the intimate not the grand dramas that touch people the most,’ Marianne observes in instruction for Olympe’s to find ‘the heart not the art’. The apt words are some of many within the play that sum up its experience, for although its story is drama filled, it is also ultimately hopeful about the power of legacy. Indeed, while its reminder of women’s importance in history is particularly resonate around the time of International Women’s Day, its important ultimate messages about the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation, and the essence of stories to humanity are enduring. In The Curator’s highly-capable hands “The Revolutionists” is a wonderful work of humour and heart that only really leaves its audience wondering why the satire is not being more widely staged. It’s passionate, powerful, political and all the rest when it comes to descriptors than moniker the type of theatre that you want to tell everyone to go and see ASAP.

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