The Female of the Species – Jess Davis successfully revives a feminist farce. (Theatre Review)

The Female of the Species

Lane Cove Theatre Company

February 8 – 23. You can grab your tickets here.

As a great fan of Germaine Greer (who I consider pathologically misrepresented) I approached The Female of The Species with some trepidation. Fortunately, except for a terrific performance by Margaret Olive, the play bares little or no resemblance to Germaine Greer’s actual opinions, but rather forces her into a room to react to those willfully misrepresenting her (literally handcuffing her to a desk). It all starts with Molly (a delightful Lib Campbell with beautifully large soulful eyes) who has skewed Margaret’s words and opted for a hysterectomy on behalf of her creative writing career without getting a second opinion on her ability to write. It’s a nonsense of course – women can barely get contraceptives or abortions, let alone hysterectomies on behalf of their career – but it does constitute one of the many hysterical anti-feminist accusations divorced from facts. Many of the old chestnuts come up; Male presumptions of misandry, women blossoming under masculine domination, motherhood being destroyed and disrespected, forced male emasculation etc. The litany of self-indulgent bitching is hilariously endless and well represented by Joanna Murray-Smith.

As for poor old Margaret Mason, she evokes the Hannah Arendt position that the banality of evil stems from refusing to think for one self and exhibiting ‘joiner’ mentality to forge a connection with ideology. Highlights of the play are the remarkably wise words sprouting from her lips by way of retort beautifully performed by Margaret Olive who proves a strong Germaine Greer mimic. There’s a bit of that mean old presumption that anything Germain Greer says in public can be skewed to present her as unpleasant in person, but Margaret Olive washes over this writing faux pas with a warm performance that makes you rush to You Tube hungry for more of the great feminist.

A beautiful piece in the director’s notes by Jess Davis requesting feminism laugh at itself flows through the spirit of the production, and spills over into the performances. John Grinston in particular (who gets the best written character in the play) as Theo, the left-wing opportunistic publishing intellectual evokes a charming comic persona that very effectively conveys respect for his great writer and her position, while tossing it all under a buss for filthy lucre. It’s the twinkle in John Grinston’s eye that bonds us to the production. It’s a lovely performance. Another superb performance comes from Zoe Crawford as the put-upon Tess Thornton who can never make a proper case for why everything in her life is Margo Mason’s fault – it just is. The underlying comedy of Zoe Crawford’s performance is that Margo Mason’s books appeal to her plight, they do not undermine it, and her inability to see the source of her own salvation is one of the comedy triumphs of this piece of writing.

Characters Bryan (Jock Lehman) and Frank (Taufeeq Ahmed Sheikh) suffer a little under the clichés Joanna Murray-Smith was evoking (apparently this piece was written in response to male writing evoking the same stereotypes on women) but charming performances divest themselves of this mantle and become hilarious recognizable characterisations. Jock Lehman in particular, with his apron and his merchant banker job (these creatures are real – I know one!) is styled with a witty nod to the snaggy bloke twenty years ago we feared was a symbol of lost masculinity, but who now we all adore and want to marry. In a brilliantly intuitive move, Joanna Murray-Smith twists him to be a gorgeous mate for the young feminist Molly, which calls forth a certain future we see around us now. Taufeeq Ahmed Sheikh is extremely funny as the ineffective ‘take charge male’ whose only perfection is complaining. These two versions of masculinity are performed with the same Jess Davis warmth that infuses the rest of the play.

All of this is plonked on a Jess Davis designed set constructed by a team led by the director herself. Producer Lochie Beh does a wonderful job bringing it all together, and the day I was fortunate enough to see this production it was almost full. The set is detailed and properly evocative fully supported by lighting and sound designed by Ross Mildwater and Jeremy Cardew and operated by Julian Dunne and Ross Mildwater.

The Female of the Species, while light and cheery, evokes themes around which people have strong opinions. Perhaps its real value lies in its ability to laugh at these subjects, even when it makes its little jabs. It reminds me of Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s oft misunderstood paraphrasing of Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Of course, today it is the proponents of ‘free speech’ who are most determined to shut it down – those who claim to be burdened by political correctness. They don’t fight for the right to speak, they fight for the right to use language to oppress. I don’t care what a man who hates me thinks of me, I just want the right to turn it off if I don’t want to hear it. Just as there is a right to speak, there should also be a right to hear. You can say anything you want – just don’t expect me to listen.