Written in 1982 when Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her game following the Falklands War, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was an incendiary and urgent play about women in power, women with power, and women and power. Now, thirty-one years later, with Thatcher’s passing and the end of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership closer to home, Churchill’s play – revived here by New Theatre – seems almost prescient.
While Top Girls can (naturally) be considered to be a ‘period piece’, borne of the social and economic transformations brought about by Thatcher’s election, it is more than a mere foretelling of the 1980s; it is an ashamedly revealing work which shows with alarming accuracy just how little we have come as a society since that time, as Lyn Gardner wrote in The Guardian in 2002.
Churchill’s play tells the story of Marlene, who has recently been promoted to managing director of the Top Girls employment agency. To celebrate, she holds a vivid hallucination-like dinner with famous women from across the ages. But underneath Marlene’s success, is the question of how much can one person sacrifice for the sake of their career? Can they be a mother and a career, and succeed in what is essentially a man’s world?
It’s a topical play for now, just as much as it was thirty years ago, and I don’t think any of its power is lost when performed today. Part of it’s success – both as a play, as a dramatic work, and as a social document, a text – is that it doesn’t overly pass judgement on its characters, nor does it shy away from going to those uncomfortable places. The first act which contains the dinner party, is propelled along by the women telling their stories – how they survived in a (predominantly) patriarchal society. The second and third acts are in a sense mirrors to the first, and contain Marlene’s story – her career, her personal life, the choices she’s made, the decisions she’s perhaps been forced to make. Underneath Churchill’s robust language and use of overlapping dialogue (perhaps the first written example of such a technique, denoted in the script by a ‘ / ’), is an uncomfortable topic which we cannot ignore. The Australian playwright Tom Holloway believes we “don’t get a true understanding of something that’s dark, [then] perhaps we can’t help, or do our best to prevent it happening more. Theatre is a safe place for that, and that’s something that I think is important for us to do, generally.” It’s no surprise then, that he counts Churchill, just as much as Sarah Kane and Sam Shepard, as influences on his style and body of work.
New Theatre’s production is smart and clever, and highlights the patriarchal oppression perhaps slightly too literally through its set of tall stone walls. The colour comes from Alice Livingstone’s direction, Gina Rose Drew’s costumes and the cast’s vocal work and the performances – the brutality of their honesty and conviction, as much as their characters’, really does kick you in the gut and makes you sit up and take notice. Just as much as everyone else, I’d love to think that things have changed, that we as a society have progressed, since Churchill’s play debuted in 1982. But we just need to look at the recent political events in federal parliament, or to look at the recent Australia Council report Women In Theatre, to see that nothing has really changed.
This year has seen a number of productions address important political and social issues, and it is perhaps a mark of maturation and engagement that this is the case. The next step to take is to use these plays as the stepping board for a societal discussion of their ideas and themes. Unlike Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which presented a deeply troubling depiction of women, productions of Top Girls and Mrs Warren’s Profession present ‘classic’ works and interrogate and question their subjects and issues, past as present, and make their audience’s engage with their representations. I hope this is not just another phase.
Theatre playlist: 19. Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, Eurythmics