Ellie Kendrick’s debut play is a polyphonic war-cry against patriarchal narratives and the dreaded male gaze. Loosely based on a reworking of Greek myths, it draws on scientific theorems from relativity to blackbody radiation to weave an exuberant narrative of male accountability and female power.
It begins as an audition, or is it a trial? Each woman appears consecutively in a spotlight on an empty stage, nervously recounting their experiences. One after another they are curtailed by a klaxon from above screaming ‘wrong!’ They falter on, they try harder, but their microphones are cut and they are ejected through a hatch in the floor. The stage becomes personified as a society which does not listen, does not care and doesn’t have time – thus cleverly implicating the audience in the process.
“A polyphonic war-cry against patriarchal narratives and the dreaded male gaze.”
This swallowing, silencing hatch is then radically subverted by another pink, fluffy cave which the women claw their way out of. They become ‘big’, they announce their intention to ‘take up space’, they smile, they sing, they eat, and they’re not afraid. Most importantly, they speak together, yet unlike the classical Greek chorus, they aren’t echoing the action from the sidelines – they are the action. And, unlike backing dancers, they aren’t dancing a supporting spectacle, they are our narrative. The six-headed cast are energetic and diverse; ranging in age, size and race to present a resilient image of intersectional feminism and sisterhood. They perform as individuals and as a united front – each actress giving an impressively unique performance and pulling their weight in the ensemble.
Pandora and Medusa’s stories are interrogated and re-examined as patriarchal abuses. Lines such as: ‘she was punished for being a punishment’ and ‘blame the daughter for the slaughter and you’re surely in deep water’ expose the hypocrisy of male violence with a sing-song sensibility and a mocking irony. Ruth Best clothes the ensemble in a range of pink tulle, feathers, sports kit, bandages and bondage, borrowing the costumed extravagance of queer performance art as well as its immensely political agenda. Hole frequently employs a similar radical embodiment and exuberant sense of humour to interrogate persistent injustices to great effect. One such moment is an exploration of the male gaze which blends symbolic physical theatre with a radical message. We are told that ‘looking is an act. Things know when you’re looking. Some things don’t like to be looked at’, as Cassie Layton appears alone on a darkened stage, dressed in a corset of fractured mirrors. As the spotlight hits her, light scatters and multiplies across the room, dancing as she dances, and mirroring our own act of looking.
Eisenstein’s theory of relativity – a landmark in the male-dominated history of science – is re-appropriated to narrate and dissect the male gaze. The women chant ‘if you try to reduce it, it will multiply’, consuming the gaze into a tool of female power. Crucially, they do not shy away from violence, using it as a necessary tool in their blanket demand for male accountability. The hydra-voices scream ‘it is your fault if you try to deform us’, ‘if you try that, we will end you. We will eat you alive’.
Kendrick’s script is masterfully structured, weaving her six voices into a multitude of forms. At times they speak together, at others in a call-and-response and sometimes in a raucous cacophony of disjointed words and sounds. Prescriptive to an extent, it also manages to be incredibly flexible. I got the impression that it could be adapted in vastly different ways, which is surely a positive indicator of its theatrical shelf-life.
Hole deserves much applause, not only as a self-contained entity, but also as an advertisement for the Royal Court’s Jerwood New Playwrights Programme, through which Kendrick developed and staged this play. The Royal Court are doing much to disabuse the notion that you have to be a middle-aged man, or deceased, to be a playwright, and their efforts are undoubtedly being rewarded. Seeing fresh, radical and experimental theatre within such an established theatre is a rare experience but hopefully one that is paving the way to a cultural climate where plays like Hole are no longer radical, but rather, the norm.
Hole is running at The Royal Court until Saturday 12th January 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.
Image: The Other Richard