Dennis Kelly – best known these days for his Tony Award-winning adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda – has long been preoccupied with the conundrum of human violence. He is often grouped with the “in-yer-face” playwrights who revolutionised British theatre in the 1990s. Certainly, Kelly has never been afraid of staging extremity.
Perhaps the most notable writers of in-yer-face theatre were Sarah Kane (Blasted, 4.48 Psychosis) and Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and Fucking). It can be traced back to the visceral immediacy of Peter Brook’s 1964 production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, which was intended, in Brook’s words, “to crack the spectator on the jaw, then douse him with ice-cold water, then force him to assess intelligently what has happened to him, then give him a kick in the balls”. In the 1970s and ’80s, playwrights such as Howard Brenton – whose critique of British colonialism, The Romans in Britain, was unsuccessfully prosecuted for obscenity by Mary Whitehouse – Edward Bond and Caryl Churchill pursued a similar aesthetic of confrontation.
Like his peers, Kelly is fascinated by the intimacy of brutal acts, exploring the minutiae of relationships to illuminate wider realities. His debut play, Debris (2003), is about two siblings attempting to make sense of a childhood marred by the deaths of both their parents. Osama the Hero (2005) features scenes of torture on a council estate, clearly meant to echo the excesses of Abu Ghraib. Girls & Boys, which premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2018 starring Carey Mulligan, focuses on family violence.
Now on at the Fairfax Studio in a Melbourne Theatre Company production directed by Kate Champion, Girls & Boys is a fragmentary monologue that narrates the story of a marriage from the point of view of the unnamed Woman, played here by a virtuosic Nikki Shiels.
After a bit of fast and funny scene-setting – Woman’s life pre-marriage, with its reckless drug-taking and terrible sex – it opens with an anecdote that has the kind of practised wit that suggests it has been told many times. She recounts how she met her husband in the boarding queue for a budget airline in Italy, how she hated him on sight because he was nose-deep in a book, allowing a gap to open that would permit queue-jumpers. How when two models attempted to weasel their way into the line by using their looks to charm him, he took the opportunity to viciously humiliate them. As Woman points out, everyone enjoys taking the beautiful down a peg or two. She tells her story well, and the audience – including me – laughs along. But its subtext of woman-hating – and a creeping sense of Woman’s internalised misogyny – reverberates more disturbingly as the play continues.
We follow the couple from their initial flare of passion to the picture-perfect nuclear family with one boy, one girl. The one thing that Woman says she regrets, in another detail illustrating how misogyny turns women against each other, is that she intentionally broke up her husband’s close friendship with another woman. The husband builds a successful business selling antique wardrobes while Woman, her confidence boosted by her supportive partner, clambers her way to acclaim in the film industry as a producer of documentaries. Everything is rosy, until Woman’s growing success unluckily coincides with her husband’s business failure. Out of this flowers an unspeakable crime.
The narrative is punctuated by domestic scenes in which Woman is caring for her two small children, Leanne and Danny. Leanne, as the oldest, complains that Danny gets treated better than she does: she is told not to complain, while Danny is comforted. Later on, as the too-busy mother allots playtime – five minutes for each child’s game – Leanne imagines being an architect, while Danny wants to bomb everything. Unlike women, men, it seems, are inherently violent from birth.
The monologue breaks into various metatheatrical asides: at one point Woman pauses the mimed games with the children to say, “I know they’re not here, by the way.” She tells us that she is performing memories; moreover, she is performing memories that she is consciously shaping into a refuge from the present. She is, Kelly hints, an unreliable narrator, but we’re never quite sure what to make of that conceit.
The production seems to reflect that uncertainty. Given Champion’s background in dance and physical theatre in Force Majeure, the direction feels surprisingly constrained and unbalanced, as the left side of the stage is rarely inhabited. Likewise, Marg Horwell’s design feels, despite its minimalism, oddly overdressed: there is a camera for projections that is used twice, a couple of chairs that are maybe employed once, and so on.
Shiels – who recently worked as the alternate actor with Eryn-Jean Norvill in The Picture of Dorian Gray – knows how to command the stage. She holds our attention for the entire two hours in a fluent, precise and felt performance, bringing an illusory substance to a text that ultimately rings hollow.
Perhaps the play’s biggest problem is that Girls & Boys relies far more heavily than it should on the unearned emotive weight of its subject matter.
As the play continues and the laughs diminish, it becomes more and more difficult to untangle the fictional character from the authorial mouthpiece. As Woman says, in one of several didactic passages that punctuate the text, 95 per cent of violence is committed by men. The binary title begins to feel a little ominous.
Although Girls & Boys claims in every sentence to be showing us a complex human dimension of violence, it never quite steps out of the world of true-crime documentary. Woman, as per her anonymity, is seldom more than the accumulation of a bunch of statistics and observed behaviours, given a coherent voice by a reasonably skilful playwright so we can nod along to the moral (violence is bad).
There’s the odd gesture towards complexity – yes, admittedly Maggie Thatcher was a woman – but these are noted and glossed over. Men are the problem – and “society”, Woman concludes, was created in order to “stop men”. If this seems rather too pat, that’s because it is. “Society” here is a stand-in for the civilising effects of women on innately feral men.
Woman begins with thinking about violence: “I just think it’s such a fundamental part of our species that how can you understand us without understanding it?” But as the narrative heads to its inevitable climax, the scope of violence narrows: there is only one kind of violence – violence perpetrated by men and reproduced, or prevented, by women.
And we’re back in a world of unchanging dichotomies, back to damned whores and God’s police, with women bearing the entire moral load of “civilisation” and all the assumed innocence and guilt that goes with it. Exactly the kind of safe and simplistic moralising that in-yer-face was designed to explode.
Girls & Boys is playing at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until November 26.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2022 as "Binary logic".
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