I arrived at Traverse Theatre late and out of breath and panting; maybe the perfect state for a show that I saw at the sober morning hour of 10am, but has a flushed tipsy heightened energy to it, of alternating shame and sexual tension and transgressive boldness.
Writer Gina Moxley isn’t someone I’d heard of before, but now I want to somehow time-travellingly see everything she’s ever done. The Patient Gloria is that exhilarating, both for its furious feminist punk songs, and for the way that her powerful central charisma on stage holds together multiple timelines and aesthetics, clashing the contest sexual freedoms of mid-century America with the repressive catholicism of 1960s Ireland with the third wave feminism of the present day.
It’s all inspired by the sobering, true, and new-to-me story of Gloria, an American woman who’s betrayed multiple times, when she’s at her most vulnerable. She seeks psychotherapy after her painful divorce, aged 30. Her therapist asks her to appear in a short educational film about psychotherapy, where she has sessions with three different famous psychotherapists: but once she’s unfolded her innermost fears on camera, she’s horrified to discover that the footage has been turned into a movie that’s aired first on TV, then on general release in cinemas.
But that betrayal feels small next to the treacherous weirdness of the therapeutic process she undergoes, and that’s enacted here. Moxley drags up to play each of the three therapists in turn; a big part of the drag is the contents of her pants, because these are men who think with their dicks.
I’ve long (and potentially irrationally) been uneasy about psychotherapy, mainly because its founding father Freud was so ridiculously obsessed with genitals. Everything longer than it is wide is a penis. Wider than it’s long; vagina. The therapist’s couch can feel like a place of sexualised vulnerability, home to weeping exploitable women; and I’m sure things are very different now, but this performance is definitely about the bad old days.
As played by Liv O’Donoghue, Gloria is distressed to find that these men are motivated as much by working out their own theories and indulging their own desires as they are by solving her problems. Their sessions fall into gendered archetypes: first father-daughter, then hunter-prey. As the men do their work, musician Jane Deasy takes to the microphone and lets slip little details about their own under-analysed psyches; the bullied childhoods, the sexual obsessions with their female patients. And Moxley breaks out of drag, too, to talk about how Ireland’s paternalistic, patriarchal legal system shaped her own sexuality.
In one mesmerising moment of storytelling, she explains how even as a seven-year-old child she was schooled never to say no, and became so glutted with offered cake at a children’s party that she made herself ill, and tormented herself with guilt at her own sinfulness. In another, a therapist disappears into the space between Gloria’s legs, as though swallowed whole by his greedy sexual desire. Gloria is sexually liberated and powerful here, even if history did its best to take her agency from her.
You know that feeling when you see a performance and you’re just delighted by every bit of it? Well, if it’s not already abundantly clear, I had that with The Patient Gloria. A little bit of bursting glee at each fresh bit of whimsical feminist anger and post-Catholic fury and look, I don’t want to spoil it, but I don’t reckon you’ll see a levitating dildo in any other fringe show. But even as I sat watching its joyful sex-positive finale, I did find myself struggling to fit its pieces together. It’s a show that’s full of anger at unwanted, intrusive penises (there’s literally a whole song about them) and it’s also a very heterosexual show and it’s also a very sex-positive show and how does that all fit together? How can true female sexual liberation exist in this dick-swinging world?
Gloria’s desire is more complicated than third wave feminism’s certainties allow for; she’s sexually drawn towards father-like, intelligent, patronising men, while simultaneously resenting the way they use their erudition to patronise her and trap her in corners. This lingering darkness is a little underexplored but Moxley is also ready to pass on the responsibility for working it all out, to the younger women she shares a stage with. Spliced across eras and generations, their voices combine into one single burst of feminist joy, flying in the face of a world that’s all too ready to analyse, restrict, exploit and deny women’s pleasure.
The Patient Gloria is on at Traverse Theatre as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe, until 25th August. Times vary. Tickets and info here.