Betty Breaks Out – Brecht, Sartre and Liz Hobart. (Theatre Review)

Betty Breaks Out

life after Productions and Kings Cross Theatre

27 August to 7 September. You can grab your tickets here

Images: Jasmin Simmons

Across the inner city of Sydney in the month of August, mini festivals celebrating new Australian writing are drawing our attention to the importance of nurturing and cultivating the Australian voice. In the midst of this, possibly the very best advertising for new work is happening in the Bordello theatre at KXT as part of their “pop upstairs” program. An astounding example of complex theatre making, and exciting ambitious new work heralds Liz Hobart as a writer to watch and director Ellen Wiltshire as a remarkable talent in interpretation and realization of scope. Props equally to presenter life after Productions who have put it all together so that the lucky people of Sydney can go along and have this extraordinary theatre experience.

Liz Hobarts Betty Breaks Out is based on an unpublished short story by Maurice G. Kiddy and it uses the short story primarily for location in time (which ends up making the play timeless) and a geographical location that calls forth a universal. Alongside this the combination of fine writing, exceptional performances and an ambitious director, the play becomes a masterclass analysis of Brecht’s concept of realism in a systemic  yet utterly revealing examination of gender roles, positing both male and female character as victims of misogyny which is ultimately proposed as a crises of realism and a distinct failure of the imagination. Actors speak their stage directions which gives the audience access to a kind of intimacy of theatre and allows Liz Hobart to play with audience expectations inside an unknown permission – or rather a genuine acknowledging of the truth of what is happening when we engage in the intellectual wager of witnessing a play.

 

Inside this, we are able to grasp the relevance of Brecht’s idea of realism as the alternative aesthetic or the revolutionary principle of production that must be a critique of the traditional system of representation. Taken in a simple paring down, for Brecht, realism must not be linked to the good old days, but to the bad new ones. Inside this singular concept, Liz Hobart articulates (with astounding simplicity) a potent difference between film and theatre, heralding film (due to its stagnant nature) as an always already listening for the ‘good old days’ and theatre as always already new because it is impossible to replicate. For Brecht, aesthetic experiments aim at the abolishing aesthetic developments of a decadent class and his theory of realism purports to defend a cultural legacy of the working class. Liz Hobart hints at this outside of Marxist theory when she uses this realism distinction as male v’s female rather than a class divide. What we are hereby left with is a warning about classical forms of art as the aesthetic standard for production and appreciation. In other words, form is not a universal, transcendental entity independent from its own historical situation. Form must always change in response to new constructed demands.

 

The problem, here is always aesthetic consensus. Liz Hobart gets around this with her adherence to artistic tropes (we have a cage in which a woman is locked, swinging lights, curtains as veils, and cinema itself) that moves into the realm of Epic theatre when it questions the very tropes it presents in terms of their content and their form. For Liz Hobart, moving actors around the stage according to age old tropes equates with moving women around in order to provide a blank canvass upon which the development from boy to man is played out. The cage in which the pair are locked is always a stage and in the staging of this itself, is the constant movements of the boundaries as if every side is a fourth wall. The effect reminds the audience to admit to the theatrical apparatus in advance and serves to absolve the production from attempting to solve any social contradiction that arises from the dramatic performances.[1] In true Brechtian form, Liz Hobart asks us to consider misogyny as a narrative that might have outrun its usefulness in a way that carries the depth and venom of what a ‘woman’ and a ‘man’ have to deal with in the wake of its ideological control.

Amid all this, is a distinct reach for the question of narrative and an existentialist suggestion at how one deals with a search for solutions, while equally criticising the underlying problems in Sartrean existentialism which is that reality outside subjectivity almost does not exist. When Betty (performed with great intellect by Annie Stafford) makes a claim for subjectivity she is immediately subsumed into response by the men in her life to such a degree that her subjectivity results in the absence of such for the men around her. For Sartre, the intellect is not the mechanical result of a pedagogic procedure. Rather its origin lies in willing something, an application, a refusal to be distracted or hurried. The undivided attention to my mind and the radical exclusion of all external forces.[2] This cannot be so for Betty, because her determined mind, her intellect and associated action, offends to the point of eradication the subjectivity of any and every “Man” therefore its interruption is essential. For Liz Hobart this problem lies in the way men become men and the fluidity of the distinction between oppressor and hero.[3]

 

The above only touches upon the sophisticated subject matter examined with great success in Betty Breaks Out. Directed with a light yet deft touch by Ellen Wiltshire, everything about this production (one modest hour for an equally modest twenty dollars) keeps the audience on their toes and engaged. Performers Annie Stafford and Tommy Misa do a splendid job realizing a layered, sophisticated script that is brought to full and vibrant life with great wit. Production design by Isabella Andronos is full of clues and makes careful and studied use of the sumptuous room, while sound by Alexander lee-Rekers and lighting by Sophie Pekbilmli infuse the production with tokenistic touches that equally add to depth and a lightness of touch together.

Betty Breaks Out is a stand out for me in a great year for Sydney theatre. Such a simple production done with so much intellect was a supreme joy to experience. Make sure you don’t miss it.

[1] I’ve leaned heavily on Alex Taek-Gwang Lee’s excellent paper “Re-Considering Brecht and Sartre on Theatre” as a way to articulate some of these ideas.

[2] J.P. Sartre Literary

[3] Liz Hobart’s observation is underlined in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ where the character Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) must be a violent oppressor (of his wife for example) in order to become a hero.