Jen Silverman’s play Collective Rage starts with a stilted dinner party and ends with a monologue and song from ‘Betty’s pussy’, played by Lucy McCormick. The characters are all called Betty. Betty 1 (Sara Stewart) is ‘very rich’ and ‘very white’, in a loveless marriage to Richard. Betty 2 (Lucy McCormick), unhappily married to Charles, seems to have nothing going for her in her life: no friends, no hobbies, no connection with her vagina. Betty 3 (Beatriz Romilly) works in Sephora but dreams of stardom and is very in touch with ‘pussy’ – hers and other people’s. Betty 4 (Johnnie Fiori) is a lesbian and likes to spend her time fixing her truck. Betty 5 (Genesis Lynea), who has just got out of prison, is genderqueer and owns a boxing gym. Betty 3, having discovered the ‘theat-ah’ on a date with a married woman, decides to devise a play with the other Betties – a mangled version of the play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Somehow it really works, even as the play-within-a-play goes wrong.
The five-strong cast carry the play, delivering hilarious performances with enough heart for the satisfaction of following an emotional arc. Lucy McCormick is particularly well-cast, producing the most amazing sense of theatrical ghosting for anyone who has seen her show Triple Threat (and has therefore seen her vagina). The cast compensates for a slight lack of substance to the script, which plays like a series of sketches and gets very meta very quickly.
The transitions in Collective Rage are outstanding. Slickly choreographed by director Charlie Parham and choreographer Nicola Treherne, the Betties punch, totter and sashay (depending on their characters) between scenes. In part, the transitions act as an alienation device, like the titles that are announced before each scene. The cast seem to quote their characters, at a slight remove, as much as they embody them, from the opening image in which the Betties sit with their backs to the audience in hairdresser style chairs, looking at their reflections. Yet the transitions also spark with an energy that refuses to be contained by the (deliberately) broadly sketched characters, like flies buzzing in amber before it sets. Or like rage.
I could laud Collective Rage for celebrating the proverbially taboo topic of female anger (Leslie Jamison’s piece in the New York Times is an interesting personal reflection on it). But I think it is a bit more complicated than that. There is rage in Collective Rage. But the play shows that there is privilege attached to the expression of anger (without being judged, without being ostracised, without being imprisoned).
‘Very white, very rich’ Betty 1 is the character which expresses her rage most frequently. She unleashes a disturbingly indiscriminate catalogue of horrors and mundanities in the news. The news makes her angry. Her husband Richard does not understand this. This makes her even more angry. Thankfully, she can pay for boxing gym membership and private coaching from Betty 5 to unleash her anger. Betty 5, on the other hand, seems remarkably sanguine about her time in prison. Betty 4 gets sad before she gets mad. Both characters are played by black actors.
In ‘The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’, Audre Lorde says, ‘Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change’. She is referring specifically to anger of women of colour in response to racism and white women within feminism’s reluctance to acknowledge their anger and experiences. Crucially expressing anger and being heard can lead to change and growth.
Over the course of Collective Rage the five women find their anger, through becoming conscious of their social positions and the attendant oppressions they face. They acknowledge each other’s anger and forge friendships and romantic relationships through it. They change, on a personal level, and as a collective. A ‘theat-ah’ rehearsal, the voiceover tells us knowingly, is the purest kind of collective rage. I wonder whether the romantic comedy ending dilutes the rage, containing it within the play. But then there’s Lucy McCormick’s closing monologue, which refuses to be assimilated.
Collective Rage is on until 17 February 2018 at the Southwark Playhouse. Click here for more details.