No one likes an angry woman.
Yet surely anger is a reasonable emotion for us to experience considering the inequality, violence and oppression so many women face?
Every time I go online, I feel overwhelmed by stories of violence against women. I’m further disheartened as the media downplays these stories, victims are blamed and perpetrators receive lenient sentences.
Every week women are being abused, raped and murdered by men in their homes and on the streets of our cities. This combination of monsters lurking outside and behind closed doors feels doubly suffocating. We’re increasingly wary of strange men, men we know, basically #allmen.
As theatre makers, what do we do with this fear and anger?
For victims of abuse, life can never be the same. What are the complexities of making art derived from women’s pain?
How do we represent/subvert violence against women on stage without being exploitative or triggering – or can we?
The idea for our show Cockroach was born out of the seemingly inflexible and dusty poetry of the Roman poet Ovid, whose 15-book epic poem Metamorphoses details the ‘kooky ways’ the Gods fulfil their passions through ‘farcical love exploits’ – essentially rape.
In 250 myths, all set in the wilderness, women such as Daphne, Philomela, Medusa, Callisto, Io, Syrinx (and many more) are raped. As a result, they’re transformed into trees, stars, fountains, animals, and flowers.
These myths were written as ‘cautionary tales’ to teach women they should submit their sexuality to men or risk being raped and outcast. Their transformations are symbolic of the silencing, shame and bodily trauma women experience after emotional and physical abuse and the alienation they encounter through victim blaming.
These crazy old stories of transformation opened up a theatrical pathway for us to explore our own experiences of gendered emotional and/or physical abuse. It was alarming how something written in 8AD could so potently capture the different ways we too felt silenced by abuse.
As modern women, our transformations haven’t resulted in us turning into trees or fountains, but we’ve certainly toughened up and put on armour in order to survive.
Just like Kafka’s quintessential antihero, Gregor Samsa, we’ve played the role expected of us and ultimately become imprisoned by it.
Kafka’s doomed protagonist spirals downward because he fails to act; he willingly accepts the wretchedness that’s thrust upon him. Our Cockroach acts.
One of the questions we’ve asked while making this show is, “What if women were allowed to behave badly, even violently, on stage and get away with it?”
In doing so, I’ve rewritten these rape myths through a contemporary lens. I’ve turned the tables on male predators and created a form of retribution, release. And it’s kind of funny. Which scares me. Are we reducing the complexity of the issue by making jokes about rape?
Real women are being abused and killed. The last thing we want to do is trigger anyone or lessen this genuine pain and loss. But if these horrific acts aren’t brought into the light, what happens to them?
Surely silence further immerses victims in shame and guilt. For me, the purpose of art is to face these messy feelings and wrestle with them in order to make some kind of sense out of it, to try and understand how to live.
Ironically, now that women have begun openly discussing the suffering, anger and grief they experience daily at the hands of men, (some) men are becoming angry.
I worry how men will respond to an angry woman on stage.
Then I get indignant. Why should I care? Why should I be nice about women being raped and murdered? I guess there’s something in the blame game that irks me. Creating division, pointing the finger, and here we circle back again to being angry.
Anger is an important emotion. It signals that something’s wrong. It can be a vehicle for change. It can help us clarify the limits of our relationships and inspire us to take a new course. It can also kill us. We can marinate in our anger like it’s a slow-acting poison.
One of the things I love about theatre is the sense of release, revelation or redemption that can occur during a show. Whether it’s a protagonist being reunited with an estranged parent, a person surviving illness or a character expressing their vulnerability, when those moments take hold of my heart I feel more deeply connected with humanity, I feel less alone.
While for many years victims of gendered violence have suffered in silence, in the last year, space has opened up for these stories to be heard and believed. It’s new territory, and with that becomes the risk of handling very real pain in the wrong way.
I’m hopeful that in taking this unsure and vulnerable step to explore gendered violence on stage that we’re also creating space for women to come together and feel a little less like a monstrous vermin, to feel a little more human.
As more and more of these stories are finding the light, at least we’re learning that we are not alone.