Left – Anita Hegh. Photo – Jeff Busby
It's London in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister and it's a new era of female empowerment. HR consultant Marlene (Anita Hegh), recently promoted to a plum managerial job, sits at her desk, replete with an all new Apple Macintosh, and day dreams. The corporate trappings disappear, her office morphing into a surreal banquet hall where great ladies of history and myth gather to celebrate her career achievements with her and welcome her to their illustrious ranks.
Don't expect it to be all bubbles and back-slapping though. This is a play by Caryl Churchill, one of Britain's most incisive commenters on gender politics, and what lies ahead in this latest production by MTC is an intellectual and emotionally fraught journey that searches deep into the meaning of material success.
Guest of honour at the banquet is the mythical Pope Joan (Maria Theodorakis), surely the ultimate symbol of female victory over, and subsequent victimisation by, a patriarchal system. The other diners too each reflect a poignant combination of attainment and sacrifice. A spurned imperial concubine turned poet (Li-Leng Au); a fiercely independent 19th century traveller (Margaret Mills); the medieval exemplar of the perfect wife (Nikki Shiels); a ferocious warrior woman (Sarah Ogden) – each lady at the table has both done the remarkable and suffered the unthinkable. Upon return to the 1980s, and the personal drama that plays out in the second and third acts, these checkered histories inform how Marlene's own successes and sacrifices are perceived.
Churchill wrote the play when Thatcher was in power as an interrogation of contemporary rhetoric that defined feminism solely in terms of capitalist success. However, as a number of revivals of the play in recent years show – including two major Australian companies with versions on stage right now – the themes in it are still fresh, the questions it raises still burning.
The script is political but at no point reductive. Ideas fly thick and fast, in conversations that cascade over the top of one another. The personal is rendered almost incidental, the glorious and the shocking alike simply parts of some larger flow of history. It is a dizzying effect at first but very powerful.
MTC's staging of it is also evocatively visual. Director Jenny Kemp has given the banquet scene an exaggerated dreamlike nature, complete with a white rabbit as waitress, contrasting with the convincingly realist depiction of corporate and family life in the 80s. Dale Ferguson's stage design is striking and symbolic, opening expansively when Marlene imagines her future and closing in constrictively when she recalls the past.
With its ensemble of substantial characters, Top Girls gives many opportunities for power-house performances and the cast, especially Hegh and Theodorakis, certainly deliver. However, with almost every character except Marlene packing a heavy accent – regional British in Thatcher's 80s and all sorts at the banquet – at times the dialogue becomes a bit of a fruit salad of exotic inflections. With so much else going on, this can be distracting.
There's no doubt though that Top Girls is a powerful show and it is uplifting to see work of this intellectual calibre being performed with such flair. MTC seems bent on impressing everyone's socks off this year and Top Girls is another winner.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Caryl Churchill
Venue: The MTC Theatre, Sumner
Dates: 25 August – 29 September 2012
Tickets: from $56 (Under 30s just $33)
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au