With a razor sharp edge Alice Birch’s play Revolt. She said. Revolt again. relentlessly questions the way we talk with and about women. In a range of episodic scenes about sex, marriage, family, and work Birch carefully skewers language, isolating and highlighting how what is said is not always what is meant and what is intended is not what is actually spoken. But where the writing is bloody and raw, Erica Whyman’s RSC production is incredibly restrained. The result is distance and analysis rather than the fury that the material demands.
With projected titles calling for various kinds of revolt – Revolutionize the Language (Invert it), Revolutionize the Body (Make It Sexually Available Constantly), Revolutionize the World (Don’t Reproduce) – the characters maneuver common scenarios in unexpected ways.
In a sex scene (with no actual physical contact) each active verb is negotiated between the man (Robert Boulter) and the woman (Emmanuella Cole). “I’m going to spread your legs,” he says. She replies quizzically, “Oh.” He reconsiders and says “Or you will spread them. When you are ready to spread them.” When he says “I’m going to take my cock,” she interrupts him with “And I’mgoingtotakemyvaginaandputitonyouFIRST.” They argue about whether she can “take” a vagina anywhere. How power, control, and desire are haggled over in a sexual encounter is subverted.
Similarly, in a marriage proposal the engagement ring is analogized by a reluctant fiancée (Beth Park) to a suicide bomb vest. He argues “I just told you I loved you” but she notes that that’s not what he said in asking her to marry him. “Those words didn’t come out of your mouth.”
The collective effect of the scenes is an unraveling of traditional stage tropes. Nothing is going to be just ok after these interactions. Birch is undermining our comfort with established narratives and letting the jagged ends dangle precariously in front of us. She does so in a mostly funny way but as things get more out of control we laugh less. There may be a surrealism to the spirit of the work but what she has put before us is still tied to our reality – it is the hyper-exaggerated version of what we might feel, think, or imagine about our existence and roles as women.
It is hard not to compare productions when I saw Lileana Blain-Cruz’s balls out, rock and roll production of the same play at Soho Rep in New York earlier this year. There was a literalism to the violence underlying the work that was lived on stage. Danger and surprise generated pulse-racing anxiety. There was visible labour on stage and a changing physical landscape which added to the volatile environment.
The RSC production strikes a more minimalist compositional tone. The production starts off with some verve in the more humorous segments but as the material becomes more destabilized and the show could explode out, it instead folds in. Symbolism is played heavily. Delivery exaggerated. The environment remains coolly unchanged. The anger in Birch’s writing is tamped down. The production starts to come across as formally presented – opting to close not with a bang but a whimper.