A Moment on The Lips – Mad March Hare reveal how well fish do without bicycles. (Theatre review)

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A Moment on the Lips

Mad March Hare Theatre Company 

March 27 to April 12 – grab your tickets here. 

Photo credits to Katy Green Loughrey

It’s the bromide feminism anticipates. A young man goes to see Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, is filled with the fear of the great vagina that very brilliant play evokes, goes home confronted, remains confronted, and chooses to annihilate both his fear and his enemy by (re)writing the play for the modern Australian audience, proving to the great vagina that he can see it all from her perspective and that he is on her side. He fills his play with the clichés of the feminine, the drug-addled housewife, the masculine protective lesbian lawyer, the Christ-rescued displaced adopted child, the ditsy psychic, the artist, the beauty and the academic feminist. He laces his play with all the bitching and nastiness that we “know” goes on between women, and he cleverly removes all males. He makes it about fertility and sisters and fills it with lesbians. All the boxes ticked, so to speak, masculine superiority back in its rightful place; Caryl Churchill grateful for the clarification.

And yet, A Moment on the Lips is not this at all. Jonathan Gavin never loses sight of the irony of his position as masculine writer/voice for these female characters, and he plays with his “limitations” in a meta-narrative that speaks not only to theatre, but to the nature of character writing itself. Gavin retains his masculine fear in his gaze, conscious he places words in women’s mouths, and through the clichés themselves and an eventual subversion, he reveals his own insecurities. Subtlety at this level takes an extraordinarily generous and talented cast and Mad March Hare Theatre Company has not just recruited such talented performers, but has gone as far as to include several performers from last years celebrated production of Top Girls by New Theatre. The use of these actors further connects us to the dilemma Jonathan Gavin tries to confront and, in his own way, solves. Men may be absent physically from the stage, but they are the invisible present, from the lesbian lawyer masculine stand in through to the omnipotent man as god / woman as puppet writing of the words. In this way the clichés become women acting out the male insistence on who they “be” rather than an “accurate” portrayal of “woman” and the male gaze is summed up perfectly in Jenny’s (Sarah Aubrey) impassioned cry at her heavily pregnant lover Rowena (Lucy Goleby) “I am jealous of you.” Finally it is in the theatrical climax that I address without spoilers, that the male is completely and properly removed from this world of women.

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As if to reinforce his point, Jonathan Gavin writes characters made for actors, subverting even his own redemptive realisations to the female performances. Every female character in A moment on the Lips is a full and luscious acting opportunity, each with their own brilliant lines, each with their own opportunity to further display how brilliantly women play out the roles relegated to them by men in RL. The play hinges around Victoria (Beth Aubrey) who is the clearest voice for women when she chooses to self-actualise rather than cling to the financial protection of men. Beth Aubrey plays Victoria deceptively simply, an artist (who can’t create under patriarchy) and a voice of reason, until she reaches the moment when the true choice for survival must be made. Ironically survival for females (and indeed everyone) is the rejection of wealth, which is the rejection of safety. Beth guides the audience to her characters realisations through a performance that relies more on thinking than speaking and it is a tribute to the fine performance that we can watch her working herself out, around and between the words she speaks.

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Jenny is Victoria’s sister, played by Beth Aubrey’s real life sister Sarah Aubrey. The women’s familial warmth translates beautifully to the stage, and again speaks to something larger than Jonathan Gavin’s words. As the last bastion of male hope (the lesbian that acts like a man) Jenny is a central characters of Gavin’s message, but again true to the spirit of the idea, Sarah Aubrey plays down her influence turning to the most female aspects of her character in her most crucial scenes. Jenny is, in some ways, the place where the battle of the sexes is played out, the masculine desire for control being forced to understand it can’t control or contain the ones it loves and Sarah Aubrey’s intelligent performance allows for the greatest subtleties to come to the surface. Her lover, Rowena is played by Lucy Goleby, a feminist academic who embodies the modern version of the feminine ideal through her pregnancy, treating this idealised notion, the pregnant woman, as a possession of the female rather than the male. Goleby plays the erratic Rowena with a passion that makes a lot of sense of what used to be called feminine hysteria, and brings a wholly realised fervor with Sarah Aubrey as the lovers.

Sabryna Te’o is Bridget, Rowena’s adopted sister is a gentle presence (much needed in the plays vibrant depiction of female “hysteria”) and yet as blind to her own prejudices as she is awake to the prejudices of others. Interestingly, the first set of sisters is played by RL sisters and the second set, an adoptive coupling, is not. The nuances come through both in the distance between the adopted sisters and the stifling closeness of the blood sisters. One of the slight writing faults of the play is the downplaying of Bridget’s dilemma so that its surfacing strikes as abrupt rather than inevitable, despite the quirky meddling of Dominique (the truly gorgeous Sonja Kerr) whose role is also strangely muffled in the writing. Kerr and Te’o are wonderful actors, however, so they each bringing a vibrancy to their roles, but they each are let down in terms of narrative arc by Gavin, in the only “problem” in what otherwise is a truly clever script. It’s almost as though Gavin is a little too clever for himself with these women, particularly the spiritually gifted Dominique, not knowing what to do with them once he brings them into his fold.

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The cast is rounded out by the gorgeous Claudia Barrie as Emma, and the very funny Ainslie McGlynn as Anne, possibly the two characters Gavin brings most to life, given they are the strongest stereotypes – the beautiful television star and the zoned out housewife respectively – and perhaps the simplest to write. Barrie and McGlynn fill the stage in each of their scenes, both playing their prodigious characters with exhilarated zeal. Again, it’s the talent of the performers that allows for the demystifying of subtleties and even as each woman fulfils our expectations she subverts them with the real presence against the assumed projections. Each character refuses the male gaze in their way and yet true to the Gavin’s themes, each woman fulfills on them perfectly when circumstances arise.

A Moment on the Lips isn’t just the interesting writing of Jonathan Gavin and the talented cast, it is also the talented direction of Mackenzie Steele assisted by Melinda Pedavoli. It is the detailed attention to costume by Isabella Andronos and the Ikea style stereotyped set (which has its own brilliance in its adherence to cliché) by Charles Davis. It is in Joe Lewis’ sound, Alexander Berlage’s lights, Alana Teasdale’s management and all the other creatives who have worked so hard to produce an excellent production.

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The women of A Moment on the Lips are not made real by the great performances of the cast, they are actors playing roles women are too often assigned, roles that include the violence and displacement (physical and emotional) that go with them. Rather, the great performances allow for a “real” woman (whoever she may be) to show glimpses of herself around the roles, primarily through those occasions she chooses to self-liberate and in the rare moments she steps out of her allocated role and embraces the woman at her side even as she embraces herself.

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