Clare Barron’s Shhhh, directed at Red Stitch by THE RABBLE’s Emma Valente, is a densely layered and intelligent meditation on how weird human sexuality can be. By Robert Reid.

Clare Barron’s Shhhh

Two performers wearing veils have one arm extended above one another. They're illuminated by a purple spotlight.
Caroline Lee, as Witchy Witch, and Jessica Clarke, as Shareen, in Shhhh.
Credit: Jodie Hutchinson

Emma Valente is undoubtedly one of Australia’s most intelligent directors. Her work with partner Kate Davis for their company THE RABBLE is known for its striking imagery and intellectual precision. In my experience, their work hasn’t tended to be text forward: rather, they balance words with vision, creating shows that are like perfectly constructed, if breath-catchingly fragile, sculpture.

It’s a testament to Valente’s skill and intelligence as a director that when working within another, quite different company at Red Stitch on a text that is, if nothing else, word dense, her eye for detail and layers of meaning remains as sharp as ever, while still serving the text. It also doesn’t hurt that the text itself is interesting, clever and funny on its own terms.

Shhhh by Clare Barron is a story of two sisters, each on their own journey exploring their confusing, shifting and quasi-mystical sexual identities. Much of the play is concerned with sex: there are simulated sex acts, descriptions of sex acts and every one of the characters – even two seemingly random characters, Francis and Sandra (Hayley Edwards and Jess Lu), overheard in a cafe speaking before or after a martial arts class – talks about sex.

One sister, Shareen (Jessica Clarke), has a boyfriend, Kyle (Peter Paltos), with whom she enjoys pushing the boundaries of her sexual and emotional experience, even though she doesn’t like him very much. She seems the more confident in herself. Shareen has a lightly sketched-in television career and a play script that’s flagging in development, as does her boyfriend. Her stories of erotic exploits have a breathless quality, not so much anxious perhaps as warily excited. In her recollections, or more accurately her critical self-examinations, of her sexual experiences, she has a complex and inconstant relationship to power and consent, the ecstatic and the destructive.

The other sister, Witchy Witch (Caroline Lee), is an ASMR podcaster and witch who divides her time between stalking and threatening Kyle and a series of adorably awkward dates with Preeya (Sunanda Sachatrakul). At first blush, Witchy Witch is less confident in herself, but once the eager and embarrassed giggling of the first date is out of the way, she starts to reveal a calm, in-command and almost predatory side. There is a relentlessness to Witchy Witch that is as much to do with the writing as Lee’s performance.

Barron’s writing reminds me of ’90s In-yer-face theatre and ’80s off-Broadway Absurdism. There are hints of Jez Butterworth and Mark Ravenhill, notes of Sam Shepard and Suzan-Lori Parks. It’s more concerned with description and reflection than with action, per se. Not a lot of “things” happen in Shhhh. While it’s not a series of loosely connected vignettes, it’s also not a completely logical progression of events. There’s almost a dreamlike logic to how moments flow into and scenes follow each other, a reflexive teleology that traces lines between thoughts rather than actions. A daydream on conflicting themes, perhaps. A discursive meditation on how weird and invasive human sexuality can be.

Shhhh describes with remarkable clarity moments, feelings, desires and fears that are conflicting and in flux. These characters live in the dangerous interplay between consent and complicity. The “I don’t really know” of the moment, the “do I or don’t I” of the ambiguous encounter, the remembered thrill of letting things go too far that may have actually been the grip of fight, flight or freeze. Barron’s characters speak unashamedly about who they are and what they’ve done, but they do it with such unguardedness their entire inner world tumbles out.

As if the pure humanness of sex itself is not confounding enough, Shhhh doesn’t ignore the age-old connections between sex and magic. When Witchy Witch is described as a podcaster and a witch, it initially conjures an image of the New Age social media influencer dabbling in Wicca for likes and follows. Instead, her magic is closer to the earth and blood rituals of ancient worship. Less crystals and karma, more double, double toil and trouble. Shhhh climaxes with a magic ritual the sisters perform together, each hidden, screaming, under a sheer pink cloth.

The intimate, black box stage at Red Stitch is dominated by a forest and mountains, a landscape mural that might be the Garden of Eden as easily as it might be the tacky lounge room feature wall once so common in nouveau riche Australian interior design. A shag pile, subtly rainbow-coloured carpet covers the floor and the toilet in the corner. A mass of pink cushions fill one corner and Himalayan salt lamps are placed strategically around. A short wall with a window and Venetian blind completes the setting. The whole set gives the impression of a flat belonging to a comfortably salaried late-20-something – with a dubious party aesthetic.

There are tiny details throughout the show that act like footnotes to incongruous associations. For example, for the magic ritual the witchy sister’s hands are painted green with red fingernails, like the Wicked Witch of the West, while the other is dressed like a character out of The Crucible. Layered images of the witch in popular culture, I think, rather than a suggestion that Witchy Witch and Shareen are analogues for Elphaba and Glinda: but I suppose you could read it both ways.

I have seen elsewhere that the play is being promoted as confronting, and for some people it will be. The sexual content, the ideas considered and the language used to describe them – even one or two of the images – may be a little much for the squeamish. One moment towards the end, which I won’t spoil here, certainly drew groans and squirming from the audience around me. Beyond this fairly superficial layer of shock value, there’s little here that is confronting, other than our own human squishiness.

It’s not a perfect work: the transition between ideas and emotional gear shifts could be a little less jarring and, though it’s definitely funny, most of the humour didn’t land for me personally – but I was the odd one out, as always. It’s a production that demands your attention and doesn’t immediately explain itself. Rather, it takes a close-up look at something most of us still struggle to articulate. It is intelligent theatre that returns to boundaries that need to be regularly pushed, if not transgressed. An honest and thorough examination of confused and confounding humanity, with its weird hang-ups and atavistic anxieties about sex.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Sex magic".

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