Kicking It Towards The Truth
Not to be confused with Cristian Ceresoli’s mesmerising The Shit, Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius’ "Shit" offers a litany of the damned from three female prisoners. A play in which three unredeemable women recount their unredeemable lives as self-fulfilling prophesies. Each cursing in futile defiance while resigned to accepting the inevitable: they’re shit, life’s shit, it’s all shit. As, indeed, is much of Cornelius’s script. Landing, as it does, bang in the middle of a toilet paper crisis. For these women appear fearful not because of what they are, but because they can never be anything else. With what little traces of humanity they own coming to surface too little, too late. And if that was the point, it’s not a very convincing one, nor convincingly well made.
Owing less to the street so much as a symposium on Pinter, Cornelius’ rat a tat, textual repetitions play like Russian roulette. Discharging lots of empty chambers with only an occasional live bullet. Yet Cornelius’ bullets will take your head off. Still, more often than not, you're likely to hear that hollow click due to predictable cursing and shape throwing. Jolts of angry electricity shooting through the script can give an illusion of life, often restarting its heart temporarily, but too often it flatlines. Not that you can always tell because of the shouting trying to pass as a facsimile of life. And often doing a good job of it too, courtesy of Kate Stanley-Brennan, Nicola Kavanagh and Aisling O’Mara. Three women strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage signifying three women strutting and fretting. Aggressively looking down their noses at people who look down their noses.
Offering the illusion of three visceral perspectives on class, mysogny, and poverty, too often "Shit" delivers a tame slap. Displaying a narrowness not just limited to ideas, but to rhythms and words. Wrapped around incidents rifled from a social workers textbook, or a prison drama, everything gets reduced to cliches and all the reduced cliches are represented. Yet Cornelius gets a lot more interesting when portraying the normalisation these women nurture, and the manner in which they’re taught to self-judge, self-loathe, and self-destruct. Live rounds revealing the lessons learnt very early on. Except, in “Shit," they’re the only lessons they learn. And they can’t be unlearned. Their lives self fulfilling prophesies invariably moving from abuse, to residential unit, to prison with an unquestioned inevitablity. For the only time things change in "Shit" is when things get worse. Nothing can get better. You might as well say goodbye to the career in social care.
All of which director Jennifer Jennings paints in broad, exaggerated strokes, as if unconsciously aware there’s lots that needs to be painted over. Luckily, Stanley-Brennan, Kavanagh, and O’Mara manage to carry it off, serving up more than the one dimensional mouthpieces with flickers of personality that are being passed off as characters. But often it’s a close call. Looking early on like foul mouthed versions of the witches from Hocus Pocus, the cartoonish is later traded for something of more substance. Stanley Brennan’s booming boxer, endlessly strutting, is forever getting the first punch in so she can get the first punch in. O’Mara’s world weary indifference disguises her deeper needs. Kavanagh’s jittery articulations superbly reveal a million truths far more powerfully than the script. Philip Connaughton’s choreography, suggesting overtones of Oona Doherty’s Hard to be Soft, compensates heavily for what’s not always present, giving a visceral physicality to compliment Jennings’ simple but clever staging. Oberman Knocks' composition, and Jenny O’Malley’s sound, help narrow the emotional scope. As does Sarah-Jane Shiels lights and Molly O’Cathain’s grey-is-the-new-orange costumes, running about freely in Emmet Scanlon’s minimal set.
When the cursing stops, and even as it’s going on, "Shit" suggests a middle class hope of transcending class while confirming the impossibility of it ever happening. Reinforcing a blind prejudice that there's no hope for the hopeless who are beyond redemption. The longer it progresses, the more “Shit” starts to look like voyeurism. In which three women's experiences of poverty and prison see them reduced to a violent inevitability. Cornelius' puppets are powerless. And "Shit" suggests they’ll stay that way. Yet Stanley-Brennan, Kavanagh, and O’Mara suggest otherwise with performances worthy of the The Slits or Pussy Riot, subverting the reductive limits being imposed on them. Indeed, if The Slits were a theatre troupe they’d likely be Stanley-Brennan, Kavanagh, and O’Mara. For, like The Slits, they can take weak material and make it compelling by their sheer insistence on kicking the complacency out of it, and kicking it towards the truth. Making it a shame the Where We Live Festival has been cancelled due to Covid-19. For there's a lot here that could be talked about. As there was throughout the entirety of the festival. Here's hoping for its return at a later date.
“Shit," by Patricia Cornelius, presented by THISISPOPBABY with St. Patrick’s Festival, in partnership with The Civic, ran at The Project Arts Centre as part of the now cancelled Where We Live Festival.