Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls begins with a group of famous women from legend and history — Pope Joan, Griselda, the Japanese concubine/nun Lady Nijo, the Victorian traveller Isabella Bird among them — sitting around a dinner table with Marlene, who works for a recruiting agency. In the latter part of the play we see the workplace and the birthplace of this high-powered woman and encounter her working class sister and her up-against-it niece. The play was first performed in 1982 (in the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership) and its fusion of feminism and one variety of postmodernism never stops it from being, to a significant degree, a transfixing piece of women’s drama which succeeds in delineating by way of sustained prelude an archaeology which is both a testimonial mythology and an intellectual history of an ongoing predicament.
Jenny Kemp’s production for the Melbourne Theatre Company is not flawless but it burns with energy and vehemence and dramatic viability. The acting may be uneven but the direction is superb and the play itself proves itself to be a classic full of truth and complexity and vitality. Anita Hegh grows in stature as the career woman, Maria Theodorakis is superb as the female Pope and has her moments as the stay-at-home mothering sister. Nikki Shiels is riveting in a number of roles. But it is Kemp’s night and Churchill’s and together they show what an engaged and audacious theatre can achieve. It is a weird thing that a major Australian company which could bomb so badly with a very experienced cast doing Lear could flare into such powerful life with this Eighties compound of thesis and soap directed at a sustained level of masterliness by one of the most famously uncompromising directors of the Fringe.
It was an icy Melbourne winter’s night at the edge of spring and no one knew what to expect. There were lots of people missing from the first night audience, though Lee Tulloch, the novelist and fashion writer, down from Sydney, was looking as fresh and sleek as the play. And Guy Pearce, who has been on cinema screens as everything from Edward VIII to a policeman in Animal Kingdom, was glimpsed looking like a figure we should see on our stages doing Steve Sewell and Sam Shepard and Shakespeare. And Francis Greenslade from Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell was there with his young daughter Isobel, introducing her to groundbreaking feminist theatre at a young age.
It’s a humbling thing to realise quite how good a play Top Girls is and how easily we mistook it decades ago for the fashions it rode in with. The long opening scene, with its overlapping Altman-like arias of dialogue and recollection, is a brilliant thing, and Jenny Kemp stages it magnificently with precisely the right combination of natural movement and formal tableaux. The set and costumes she has got from Dale Ferguson are superb and she ensures that her ensemble of actresses interact in a way that is richer than the individual performances.
Among these, however, Li-Leng Au has a stately power but also an individualised passion as she steps in and out of her mask as the great courtly lady and Buddhist nun. And Maria Theodorakis is a revelation as Pope Joan, manipulating a marvellous Mediterranean singsong with an effect of great music and mournfulness, and chanting her Latin with an effect of magic.
Anita Hegh is a touch uncertain at this early stage, though the character, with her amplified nervousness and her stilted drunken walk, has an easy brilliance of outline. Nikki Shiels brings a dazzle to her characterisation of poor Patient Griselda and Margaret Mills has the right kind of sharpness as Isabella Bird, even if she could do with more subtle undertones. Sarah Ogden as Dull Gret (the woman drawn by Brueghel who beats up devils in Hell) gives an interesting female impersonation of the earlier, stouter Shane Warne.
But Jenny Kemp integrates the relative strengths and weaknesses of her actors like a great musician and the effect (at every level) has that effortless sense of continuing and evolving interest that the Australian theatre so often lacks.
The London office scenes may be less masterly than this, but they have an obvious punch and panache even if Maria Theodorakis seems wrong as the wife of the bloke who doesn’t get the job and Sarah Ogden is unconvincing as the young girl claiming job experience.
She’s also a bit miscast as the younger girl who is the object of the affections of the trouble child, the 16-year-old with whom the career woman has a family tie.
It’s also true that Eryn Jean Norvill — Ewen Leslie’s Ophelia a couple of years ago — is perhaps a shade too blonde and girly as the teenager who cleaves to her career woman ‘aunt’ with an impassioned sense of longing.
None of this matters enough, however, to be a significant impediment to the drama’s unfolding. And this is true too of Maria Theodorakis in the latter part of the play, where she has to carry a fair bit of the dramatic weight of this extraordinary drama as the sister who confronts Anita Hegh’s career woman. Theodorakis is flatter, plainer, harder, than she should be — and too much on one note. Hegh herself careers and slides, the characterisation closer to the writer’s contour and with considerable power of poignancy.
But Jenny Kemp directs with such sweeping and stabbing authority that we believe in the performances in spite of any flatness or wrong note. Kemp asks for complete authenticity and within human limits she gets it absolutely. There is no expense of talent in this production but it is a triumph.
Top Girls is at the Sumner Theatre until 29 September.Tags: iapps