It comes as no surprise that Joanna Murray-Smith's comedic romp into post post-feminism should have caused such a stir when first performed in Melbourne Australia in 2006. The principal character is a non-too-subtle caricature of an international treasure and feminist icon. What is, perhaps, more surprising is that Murray-Smith's play should benefit from such glorious hype because it was attacked by the icon herself. Germaine Greer very publicly and very vociferously denounced The Female of the Species, equally vehemently describing its playwright as an 'insane reactionary'. Cue publicity.
Anyone in the audience at the Vaudeville Theatre who agrees with Ms Greer's comment is, I suggest, suffering from an excess of seriousness. Yes, the obnoxious foul-mouthed Margot, desperate to squeeze the last drop of radical comment from her 'vagina' dialogues, is most obviously a somewhat one-dimensional spoof of the Greer phenomenon. Yes, an episode which actually happened, in which Greer was confronted in her home by a deranged and disgruntled ex-student, provides the overall premise to the piece. Surely, however, this light whimsy would have remained firmly embedded in the Melbourne dramatic archives had it not enraged Germaine and so whetted press interest around the world.
This all implies that the play is not a potential hit. Far from it. If you like your humour broad, your comedy knockabout, your one-liners liberally spattered with 'F'- and 'V'-words, and your outcome an unlikely denouement which deftly announces the decline of the feminist diva and the return of cave-mannish domination, then you're going to love this. If the retaining bolts on the Vaudeville seating can stand the strain that is. The row of women to my right were literally rocking the audience with delight as each vicious put-down, each irreverent swear-word, each angst-ridden utterance of disappointed womanhood hit home. This is definitely a play for the girls.
Not surprising, either, with three wonderful female actors let loose under Roger Michell's farce-paced direction. Eileen Atkins is a perfect choice for the irascible old feminist writer, Margot, deftly removing her bra onstage and struggling to drink whiskey from a bottle with a far-too-short straw. Atkins plays a character we certainly love to hate. She has been the lousy mother and equally lousy university teacher, too engrossed in her own importance to register anyone else around her. Atkins is superb.
Margot is confronted by a west-country lass whose personal redemption and quest has led her full circle from her mother's suicide to the rural retreat of the 'elderly' writer. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Molly, failed ex-student of Margot who now returns to seek revenge for her lost youth and, far more sinisterly, her lost womanhood. The supposed power of the feminist spirit to denounce the female of the species and its right to procreate has had a devastating effect on Molly. Molly now wields a ludicrously large gun in the face of her old tutor. Molly's revenge is full of bittersweet love and respect. Maxwell Martin is wonderfully vulnerable in this far-from-vulnerable role.
Into this feminist mix appears Tess, gloriously performed by Sophie Thompson. Every mother in the audience recognized the sheer exhaustion of Thompson's portrayal. A woman on the verge of a complete breakdown who, when faced with a gun to her head, excuses herself by simply wandering off for a well-deserved nap. Not enough to have stepped out of her home, leaving her young children alone and defenceless, she now arrives at her mother's home to hear that she, Tess, the daughter of the great Margot, has been held up to ridicule as all that is wrong with women. Margot's students cite Tess in their essays as what not to do with their lives. Thompson's portrayal of tiredness and utter, utter sexual frustration delights and amazes in equal measure.
Paul Chahidi as Tess's husband Bryan, Con O'Neil as the macho taxi-driver, and Sam Kelly as the overtly homosexual publisher Theo, play their parts well. The men's characters can never be as rounded, however, as the women in the play. Where we might expect some dialectic on the changing role of the sexes, we are presented with yet more slapstick humour and unbelievable happenchances. In the end, we all know it will turn out for the best and all will find their true vocation in life.
The Female of the Species might not purport to be deep political comment, but it does touch on contemporary issues in a surprisingly forthright way. As a vehicle for some great female acting, it is an excellent play. As an evening of laughter and fine one-liners, it is refreshing in its brashness. I watched only one disgruntled elderly gentleman leave the auditorium. The rest of us, and especially the rocking crowd to my right, were having a lot of fun, quite possibly (and most undeservedly) at Ms Greer's far-distant discomfort.
Kevin Quarmby © 2008