Michele Lee’s Single Ladies is set in Collingwood, an inner-city Melbourne suburb whose increasingly affluent demographic lives cheek-by-jowl with housing commission tenants. It’s a restless hybrid of art spaces, hipster cafes that seek to quench insatiable coffee cravings alongside residents who can’t afford oat milk lattes.
As is the case in most of Australia, the layers of historical sediment are often elided. Collingwood once bore other names “Yálla-birr-ang” (the wooden point of a reed spear) and “Ngár-go” (high ground); when you pronounce them, the tongue caresses the palate. In spite of its flux, the area’s enduring Indigenous character is witnessed by many presences, both real and symbolic. “Celebration Dreaming”, a mural by Gunnai Waradgerie artist Robert Young, is one of the most resplendent.
It feels apt that Single Ladies is performed at Red Stitch theatre. St Kilda is another Melbourne tourist showpiece that has suffered from overdevelopment and gentrification’s steady marginalisation of its poorer residents.
At the turn of this century, Raimondo Cortese’s St Kilda Tales sought to capture this suburb’s energy with an almost violent viscerality. The play’s discordant notes might have been unpopular with some, but they were true to St Kilda’s nature and encapsulated its grotesquerie. Many of these themes are mirrored in Lee’s play, but the experience has been whittled down to an intersecting comic narrative of three women that takes place over the course of a single day.
Directed by Bagryana Popov (Them, Café Scheherazade), the women of Single Ladies provide a collision of female experience and a rich source of humour for Lee, whose previous works – including Rice and Going Down – have also explored gender and ethnicity. The disparate group is linked by the search for a missing staffy dog named Puckle. The eldest, Anne (Andrea Swifte), is a sanguine septuagenarian of Anglo background. Lilike (Caroline Lee) is a volatile “Hungarian via Yugoslavia via Collingwood”. Rachel (Jem Lai) – referred to by Lilike as “Miss Millennial Chinese Lesbian Uber Eats Driver” – is the youngest.
The play contests and resists labels and appearances. Lizzie, Puckle’s owner, is just one of the subjects of its rapid-fire verbal volleys. When Lilike refers to Lizzie as “a homeless person”, Anne quickly rectifies the dehumanising qualifier, insisting that she is “a woman experiencing homelessness”. A moment later the tables are turned; Lilike questions Anne’s use of the phrase “ethnic food”. In the hands of a less forgiving writer, Anne might be portrayed as a rapacious white do-gooder, but Lee is not interested in stereotypes. Anne is quick to apologise – “I don’t mean to be rude. I don’t know the answer” – but slips or misunderstandings continue. It’s a comment on the landscape of modern language, as destabilised as Collingwood itself.
Swifte plays Anne as a woman whose voracious loneliness emerges like invisible tendrils. Although her kindness might be initially construed as an elision of self – there is something nun-like in her charitable actions and the contained way she holds herself – she is also a woman who enjoys her lively, albeit “complicated”, sexual life.
If Anne is guided by her sense of what is good, Lilike is fuelled by the myriad petty slights that mark her daily existence and by what she sees as the failures around her. Twitter rage has nothing on Lilike: she is the Yang to Anne’s Yin. Caroline Lee revels in Lilike’s nervy stridency: her body seems to fight the very space she finds herself in. She refers to the ubiquitous string of “Cancer Warehouse” pharmacies and bellows an expletive-pocked tirade at the builders of the development across the road. Lilike feels emblematic of those floundering characters that roam the streets ready for a fight, the kind who might lead passers-by to cross the street. If she is written big, there is the sense that Lee – a consummate performer – plays her bigger.
Lilike rails against women’s invisibility. She might be a riff on those incandescent-with-truth song lines from Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom: “Nobody ever saw me, / She whispered in a rage. / They were blinded by my beauty, now / They’re blinded by my age.” Her response to the circumstances that seem intent on shunting her out of the picture, out of a job, out of a house, out of a suburb, is to enact an extreme, and very funny, form of protest, in which she is confronted by the reality that the neighbourhood is mostly composed of people half her age: “They couldn’t see me, didn’t have a word for someone like me,” she says. The site of her radical act – a Coles supermarket with a tapas bar – subsequently bans her.
But this is a play of three women, not two, and here’s where it gets messy. The unrelenting hysteria of Rachel the Millennial’s wallowing post-break-up self feels jarring, even for a play that has set itself up as not quite naturalistic. It’s as if the production hasn’t committed to the slapstick melodrama this character enacts. When Anne offers Rachel a hug, we understand this to refer to Ita Buttrose’s condemnation of millennials as lacking resilience and requiring hugs in workplaces. There is one moment in which the young woman in her cartoon T-shirt becomes more than a caricature, but it comes too late. It’s a lost opportunity to offer some profound reflections about this generation.
At times Single Ladies takes on overtones of a Melbourne Thelma & Louise, a version with a tram ride and dance scene executed with bánh mì in hand (two of the play’s joyous highlights). The film’s desert landscape is replaced by a cartography marked by cafes, restaurants and fast-food places. This is where the script zings. Romanie Harper’s inventive set of sliding panels is skilful and in line with the continuous shifts and restlessness of its surroundings.
The play’s pace is mostly frenetic, in tune with its environment, but I wished there were more moments, however fleeting, of stillness. This would have allowed space for the scenes without comedy – those that approach truths about alienation and community and loneliness – to be fully inhabited. Collingwood, for all its seduction and energy, still contains pathos.
Single Ladies plays at Red Stitch, St Kilda East, Melbourne, until March 14.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "Unstable realities".
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