Patricia Cornelius’s Love and Shit
Sometimes, I really do question why I love theatre. It’s not because theatre can fail so spectacularly: failure is part of its edge, the necessary obverse of ambition. What makes me question my lifelong fascination with the form is more often conventional “success” – say, the comfortably soldout season of a forgettable hit from the West End. Worse, there’s the very particular despair that can afflict you during a show that nobody loves or hates or in fact feels anything much about at all.
In the face of the calamities we scroll through routinely every day, theatre can seem utterly fatuous. Yes, says the little voice, you’ve been deceiving yourself all along: theatre is no longer capable of vitality or truthfulness. It exists only to reinforce those middle-class delusions of cultural status that are now, in the midst of hyper-capitalist collapse, symptoms of toxic nostalgia. It is all those things you fear it is.
Fortunately for my wellbeing, I went to see Patricia Cornelius’s plays Love and Shit at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne’s Flinders Lane. Here the tickets are cheaper than in the state theatres, and the seats are functional rather than plush. That’s no guarantee of quality or integrity, of course, but in this case it’s the frame for the best theatre I’ve seen so far this year. Love and Shit, a darkly vital diptych directed by Cornelius’s long-term collaborator Susie Dee, remind you not only of what theatre can be, but of what it essentially is.
Like all cultural artefacts, live theatre isn’t ever wholly a commodity. Even at its most vitiated, it’s an enactment of ritual that occurs in the presence of an audience. One of the reasons I keep returning is that its liveness – the ephemeral, temporally bound presence of performers, breathing the same air as I do – still holds a possibility of liberation. Performance is a relationship, not a product, and in a time when every definition of value involves a dollar sign, theatre’s communal making of meaning can embody new possibilities.
Cornelius and Dee have been working in independent theatre for more than three decades now, and this double bill demonstrates their mastery of the form. As collaborators, they’re hard to beat: Cornelius’s texts and Dee’s direction create stylish, essential work, with the kind of profound burnish that can only be created by skilful practitioners at the top of their game.
These two three-handers were written more than a decade apart. Love premiered at the Malthouse Theatre in 2005, while Shit, directed by Dee, was part of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Neon season in 2015. This production of Shit is a remount, featuring the original cast, while Love is an entirely new production. After their fortyfivedownstairs season, the plays will tour to Italy in July to be the first Australian theatre works staged at the Venice Biennale.
After years working as an independent Melbourne playwright, gathering plaudits and prizes but rarely programmed by our flagship theatre companies, Cornelius is having some time in the sun. This year she also won one of the richest literary prizes in the world, the $US165,000 Windham–Campbell prize.
Nothing exposes the persistence of the cultural cringe more than the timidity of our major arts organisations towards the brilliance in our midst. When you look at Cornelius’s work, it’s easy to see why her work doesn’t easily fit a mainstream that is averse to the smallest whiff of risk. She doesn’t write aspirational theatre about the problems of the middle classes, and her characters don’t transfer to glossy brochures.
Her plays are tough, poetic dramas that walk an edge of abstraction, often concerning themselves with characters who exist beyond the pale of conventional society. Love and Shit are studded with a black-nailed, cynical humour that expresses a fierce resilience in the face of the worst society has to offer.
Cornelius has always been a writer as much concerned with the wounds of class as those of gender. The characters of Love and Shit seldom appear on Australian stages, except perhaps as objects of pity: they are all members of the underclass that we still have trouble admitting exists in Australia. In Shit, Peta Brady, Sarah Ward and Nicci Wilks play three young women who have fallen through the cracks of the welfare system, and who have committed a terrible and pointless crime.
Re-rehearsed from its 2015 premiere and redesigned by Marg Horwell with a pared-down set, it’s near flawlessly performed: every gesture is sharp and accurate, integrating with the text to generate a vital whole. The performers own this show; their work has the ease and power of total confidence. It’s exhilarating.
The narrative emerges through a series of dialogues punctuated by choreographed movement and chorus. These three women are almost completely brutalised, spat out of a system that has failed them at every turn since birth. They are all but irredeemable: violent, cynical, utterly without illusion or compassion for themselves or each other or anyone else. Their lives are shit, they tell us, and so are they.
And yet, for all the shocking poverty of every aspect of their lives, Cornelius draws us complete and complex human beings, characters who, like all of us, are shaped and driven by forces they do not understand and are unable to control. They are by turns hilarious, defiant, pregnant with inconsolable sadness.
Love, another powerful three-hander, is about three junkies in a complicated, exploitative relationship of need, dependence and addiction. Annie (Carly Sheppard) is a young sex worker who falls in love with Tanya (Tahlee Fereday). They form a commercial partnership, with Tanya working as Annie’s pimp, until Tanya is sent to prison and Annie, terrified of being alone, hooks up with Lorenzo (Benjamin Nichol). After Tanya is released, they become a trio.
The play follows, again without making judgements, the shifting power relationships between the three of them, along the way generating an acidic critique of the corruption of human relationships under capitalism. The naked exploitations we witness through the play run all ways but, in the end, devolve most of all on the femme character.
It’s worth noting that both Fereday and Sheppard, a dancer and choreographer, are Indigenous performers, which weaves another subtext into this story of exploitation and need. We watch the hierarchies emerge: the characters slide from the democracy of love, in which each person is equal, into the tyranny of patriarchal exploitation, in which the only winner is the top dog – the heterosexual white man.
And yet, despite the bleakness of this trajectory, somehow we never doubt that the love each character feels, at least at first, is real. Under the pressures of the scramble to survive, their various loves shade into need, dependency and addiction, wearing every relationship down to bare utility.
Again, the performances, played fluidly across a miniature stage in the middle of the space, are remarkable, directed with a sure, spare aesthetic. If the performers are not in a scene, they simply sit with their backs turned to us, their legs dangling off the side of the stage. Sheppard’s dance background permits her to bring a startling physicality to the character of Annie, a compelling, abject grace that is ultimately heartbreaking.
Gender plays through these two works in intriguing ways. In both there’s a monologue by a masculine woman about her hatred of her own femaleness, in which she rejects with loathing the softness and permeability of her body. These women are profoundly alienated from themselves. For all of them, being feminine is, and can only be, an expression of weakness; masculinity is the language of power.
At the same time, however brutalised they are by the violences of gender, Cornelius’s characters constantly break its limitations. Because they’re outsiders, they operate, almost by default, outside the binaries that define and reject them. It’s as if they can’t help being human.
These are not comfortable plays, and they don’t make comfortable judgements that let their audiences off the hook. The compassion that Cornelius brings to her characters implicates all of us in a common humanity.
But this makes them sound earnest and worthy. These are not plays that you should see because they are either of these things. They’re funny and tragic, as sharp as obsidian. They’re worth seeing because they’re subversively, beautifully alive.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 8, 2019 as "Class act". Subscribe here.