Here’s a fucking cool play. And if that seems like the wrong way to open a review, like I should start by saying, “Here’s a really important and moving piece of theatre that demands to be heard,” then you haven’t already seen Deer Woman. Because despite being, yes, ‘really important’ and very ‘moving’ and, in many ways, ‘demanding to be heard’, Tara Beagan’s play actively resists being turned into the type of work well-meaning but patronising audience members might like it to be.
Lila (Cherish Violet Blood) is an ex-army Blackfoot woman and devoted older sister of Hammy. Like a huge number of other Indigenous women in Canada and North America, Hammy is abducted and murdered. While out on the annual public march commemorating the disappeared women, Lila spots a suspicious-looking white man who likes to hang around these events supposedly in solidarity with the Indigenous community. On a hunch, she starts investigating him and discovers her sister’s killer. Then, she wants revenge – for Hammy and for all the other women raped, murdered and battered beyond recognition.
Early on in the play, which is performed by Blood sitting in front of a video camera with two video screens behind her, Lila recounts her girlfriend Gloria’s experience of going to a play in Canada that involved a white person playing ‘an Indian of some kind’ and allowed the white people in the audience to all ‘go to a show and cry a bit and feel like [they’re] such a good person.’ As Gloria left the theatre she bellowed into the building: ‘ENJOY YOUR PAIN PORNO!’
Deer Woman is not pain porno. It also resists clichés in other ways too, pausing at one point to say with scorn: ‘You can write that down if you like: Native American wisdom…” Lila also undercuts her own narrative whenever the plot gets too neatly looped together. She really is like the tough older sister everyone wants, the one whose cynicism is excellently aimed at the bullshit of the world, but doesn’t turn her cold towards the people and things she loves.
It’s difficult reviewing Deer Woman without mentioning THE THING THAT HAPPENS. Because it feels like if a review of it exists in the world not mentioning THE THING THAT HAPPENS then it would be avoiding mentioning something that many people probably consider a pretty big deal. Here’s a brief spoiler: it involves a penis and a small serrated hunting knife. Anyhow, TTTHs isn’t actually the most important part of the play – although it does make a pretty good wet thwack when it hits the floor.
But to focus on a white man’s cock would be doing the exact opposite of what Deer Woman is truly about. And not just because violence begetting violence is always one of the least interesting events to occur. The parts of Deer Woman that really stick in the mind are often the smallest mentions of things like: an adult hand on a teenaged leg, an angrily thrown door stop or the disgusting image of one finger with a long finger nail.
There’s also the silence, this huge gaping hole representing the lost sister who, in many ways, is the most important person in the story. A blank, a void, an emptiness. Deer Woman is a kick-ass revenge story, but what makes it so much better than the typical cowboy-shoots-cowboy thrillers is how everything is seeped in love.
Deer Woman on at Summerhall’s Canada Hub until 24th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.