The Gulf – Audrey Cefaly and the distance from ourselves. (Theatre review)

The Gulf

Lume Productions at Flow Studios (Flow Studios 59 Denison St Camperdown)

23 August – 5 September

You can grab your tickets here.


Many of our contemporary ‘free speech’ arguments can be distilled to the idea of searching for a fundamental truth in the face of post-modernisms insistence that truth, like Neitzche’s God, is dead. Everything that is at play depends on the line of demarcation traced between thought and non-thought and adhere to some Wittgensteinian idea to subtract the real (or the mystical element) from thought, so as to entrust its care to the act which alone determines whether our life is saintly and beautiful. But it is also possible to imagine that subjectivity occurs in an open system. A living being might not ‘just’ be a structure but a structure that is open to its surroundings and other structures. Interactions occur in this opening that permit a living being to live, to grow, to renew itself. Instead of a model of a self that is stable and unified, what if the self was always in process and affective energies were continually detestable any given understanding? We are affected by our surroundings, especially the people we love. In Audrey Cefaly’s The Gulf, Kendra and Betty love each other, but their love is as defined by their environment as it is by the past and future selves. There is a to and fro of energy, desire and memory. One person’s excess may be offset by the others’ response. Kendra and Betty continue to respond to each other in some way or another, keeping up a kind of oscillation. While the love relationship has its promises, it also has its dangers. As speaking beings, Kendra and Billy are always works in progress and their subjectivity is never constituted once and for all.

In that boat, in that river, in that place, in that country and in that time Kendra and Betty are seized at the fragile spot of their subjectivity where their collapsed defenses reveal a wandering exterior turning into an abominable interior. A kind of war brews, bordering on putrescence (think of a woman who used to be a racing car driver living in a fetid room swamped with unhealthy cats) while social and familial rigidity, that safe, saintly mask, crumbles within the beloved anathema of innocent vice. A universe of borders exists (that manifest as a variety of Gulf’s) at the turning point between social and antisocial, familial and delinquent, feminine and masculine, fondness and murder. (See Julia Kristeva Powers of Horror for source) As we watch Kendra and Betty engage in the most tortured of connections, the everyday, our own borders of self are put on trial. We are pushed to the place prior to our ability to make judgments about objects, and is this not crucial to Audrey Cefaly’s point? These lovers exist in a language created to hate them, but they carry the double complexity of maternal abjection. Even as Betty and Kendra refuse external definitions of who they are and how they love, they are doomed to uphold those definitions by the act of refusal. When language has given birth to this problem, how do we use language to convince ourselves it doesn’t exist? The pain is palpable as we watch these lovers reach for each other with gestures that tear them apart.

For those of us seeking a new language, a way of speaking that unites rather than separates, liberates rather than constrains and has us see other rather than reduce other, we need to examine the systems in which we live and the impact of these structures upon our lives, argues Audrey Cefaly. For example, Feminism often aligns itself with socialism, but one of the chief tenets of socialism is the ideal of ‘universality’ which means socialism can’t appreciate woman’s particularity, much less woman’s desires. We witness that the equality strategies of our great feminist mothers (to whom we owe an unrepayable debt) because the issue of sexual equality is bound up with the underlying sexual and symbolic contract. In other words, it is the logic of the overall system itself that denies woman sexual equality. The point here is not to denigrate socialism but to say that – no matter how ideal – any system positions its members in different ways. Sexual, biological, physiological, and reproductive difference reflects a difference in the relation between subjects and the symbolic contract – that is, the social contract. Kendra and Betty are part of system built on a unification that demands a certain kind of self-refusal that the system insists upon from its enlightenment ideals of universality. They can shout in that boat until they are hoarse but the world around them prevents them from hearing each other. The task before us now is to attend to the singularity of each woman. This focus will combine forces from previously inadequate social structures to discover first the specificity of the feminine and then the specificity of each woman. Just as Kendra and Betty need to leave the waters they are trapped in; their tragedy is that they will remain lost until we can re-think existing social orders.

This gentle, lilting production finds a beautiful home in Flow studios, a new space that’s been elegantly cobbled up to perform as a theatre. Betty (Brenna Harding) and Kendra (Diana Popovska) are enormously likeable women, whose tragedy forges past the issue of difference to a space where we feel our sameness. This is a unifying performance by a group of creatives that calls forth a different kind of recognition from the political. Mia Lethbridge keeps the play simple, allowing the performances to reach out to the audience. Brenna Harding is a sweet, joyful Betty who successfully makes beauty from her own flaws. Keeping her character vacillating between her strength and her weakness is skillfully wrought by Ms Harding who never steers us away from Bettys most enduring quality – her warm loveable core. Diana Popovska’s performance of Kendra is contrasts her lover only superficially. She plays a Kendra deeply in love, in a crisis search for a small piece of the world to simply live. Ms Popovska plays Kendra’s prickliness as a surface defense that is used to hide her ability to martyr herself for love. Performance is everything in this play, and risk is rewarded with two actresses who not only understand their characters but like them as well. Mia Lethbridge allows the warmth of the play to seep into the room, and a strong sense of camaraderie ensues as we watch narrative unfold.

The Gulf is a soft still voice on the difficult emotional political terrain we are all currently struggling with. It’s a beautiful piece of theatre, that leaves its audience touched and then moved by its sublime reach.