The much praised independent production SHIT is having a welcome return season at fortyfivedownstairs. Having heard much praise for the original production I couldn't wait to see the show. My expectations were high but I'm not sure that I was totally prepared for such a powerful piece of theatre. Centre stage are three women, each of whom has suffered abuse as a child, each of whom is, as an adult, pretty good at dishing out the same treatment not only to others but also to herself.
The three women storm onto the stage, the F word flying madly back and forth between them in a way that has the audience laughing their heads off. The three quickly end up in a competition to see which of them can say a whole sentence without using this word; only one manages. As Bobby says to the loser, you don't just wear out the word you wear it thin, later adding 'there's life in them words'. Over the course of the performance we are given passing insights into the lives of these women, past and present; the abuse they have suffered, the abuse they deal out to others and themselves, and their hidden hopes and dreams – a bedroom with a lock on the door; a loving mother, a fridge full of food.
Everthing about this production is understated, except for the performances which are full-on. Billy (Nicci Wilks), Bobby (Sarah Ward) and Sam (Peta Brady) pull no punches, they say it as they see it, and they are as tough on each other as they are on the world around them. They have little in common and yet everything in common. They have each suffered abuse (sexual and physical) as children from the people in their lives especially men. Now they find themselves fighting together against a world that has excluded them. Billy is the tough, hard bitch, keen for a fight and denying any emotion, as she says 'crying is a waste of time'. Bobby is a big woman who hates the way men comment on her body and as a result hates herself and her body; she knows only too well when to fight and 'when to go dormant'. Sam is more conventionally attractive, using her body to get what she wants from men. She dares to openly dream of a more conventional life with a dog or two, a fridge full of food and maybe even a baby to love and be loved by. Bobby and Billy visciously put her down for this.
Susie Dee's direction works beautifully with Patricia Cornelius's writing to reveal the hidden depths beneath the expletives and violence. The writing is spare; every word counts. We are given brief glimpses into the characters' past lives and present feelings, insights which work powerfully to create levels within levels, ensuring that Billy, Bobby and Sam are fully rounded characters, people we can both love and hate and even come to understand. The direction allows for moments of high energy, interspersed with quiet moments where nothing is said and the body is allowed to tell the story of the moment, sometimes in stillness sometimes in energetic action.
The set design frames and supports the action, never overwhelming it. Entering the theatre one is faced with a wall across the stage with three rectangular openings. The immediate thought is of a basement car park or an underpass. During the performance the set suggests a prison, with exercise yard and individual cells, the streets outside and even a strip of film – there are moments when the actors are 'captured' in freeze frame within the openings. When they 'escape' their prison cells, they are on the other side of the wall and we only see their actions fleetingly through the openings and more fully reflected by a large mirror to one side of the stage.
SHIT is an important theatrical work that pulls no punches. Everyone involved has a rich experience in performance – theatre, film, cabaret, circus – and it shows. At the heart of the piece are women of spirit and guts who because of their anger and hurt hit out at anyone who threatens them. We may be put off by their violence but it's impossible not to have a grudging respect for them. Marginalised from society they are struggling to survive in the only way they know how. They are no less human, vulnerable, or hopeful than we are, it's just that they (and we) know that, for them, there is no hope. It is exhilarating to see such wonderfully complex women portrayed on stage.
SHIT is a confronting, poignantly humourous work. Be prepared for a full-on theatrical experience.
by Patricia Cornelius
Directed by Susie Dee
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane Melbourne
Dates: 4 – 15 May 2016
Bookings: fortyfivedownstairs.com | 03 9662 9966