When she is assaulted, they ask, ‘why don’t you leave’?
When the stranger presses her against the bar and sticks his fingers in her, they urge: ‘Go. Quit the bartending hustle. This place isn’t safe for you.’
When the nun turns rebel and calls out the order, denies God as ‘Him’, displeasure rumbles and hostility brews. Without any pathway to priesthood, forbidden from leadership, she is asked: ‘Why stay? Go. This place doesn’t welcome you.’
But how few are the places that are safe or welcoming towards women? Go where? And what is lost when one cedes the right for their body, their voice, to occupy a space?
The crackling firestorm of trailblazing testimonies that make up I’m With Her are all derived from real life experiences – because you really don’t need to make this shit up.
Many are attached to prominent names: Julia Gillard, remembered for giving a grinning misogynist a well-deserved dressing down, rather than the work she did; Pam Burridge, Australia’s champion surfer (in the audience for opening night); Marcia Langton, Yiman woman and distinguished academic, who will not let us ignore the state-sanctioned femicide going on in Aboriginal communities.
Other names you might not be quite so familiar with. Which is significant. The #MeToo movement has so far mainly been a reckoning for relatively privileged women, who are nested higher than others in the intersectionality web. They spoke and someone, at last, listened. They looked for solidarity and not only did they find it, but it gave them momentum. Sex workers, hospitality workers, Muslim women and Indigenous women are relegated to another kind of problem that society often isn’t prepared to recognise or remember, let alone confront.
Over 100 stories were heard by director and writer Victoria Midwinter Pitt; you can feel them thrumming in the air as an invisible current. Just nine were distilled into the final script. Told by an exemplary cast of five clothed all in white, they evoked the overwhelming, inescapable, multiform violence that women encounter, suffer under, grit their teeth and muscle against. Generations of women from different backgrounds, ethnicities and faiths.
But “the golden thread [of these stories] isn’t the shit we live with every day,” said Pitt in an interview. “It’s the resistance.”
These stories are not those of victims, but badass fighters.
Fierce and tenacious, their refusal to shut up is a dangerous thing – a danger amplified by each voice that is added. This, when only a week ago ABC removes the all-female Q&A episode from its platforms after receiving 200 complaints.
It is a brave thing indeed to entrust another person to ventriloquise something extremely personal on your behalf. Each of the actors on stage honours the remarkable women whose tales they carry (this goes too for Deborah Galanos, who stepped in after Sheridan Harbridge had to regrettably bow out, and who glances occasionally at the script).
Through Lynette Curran, you adore environmental scientist Dr Marion Blackwell; through Emily Havea, you are in awe of Nikki Keating. Shakira Clanton is a knockout as Burridge and Langton. Her command over the audience is so casual, so sublimely at ease and I have never seen a side-eye so powerfully bestowed.
The female gender being an identity which defines over half the population, there will always be another story to tell. Even at three hours long, the play contains lacunas and omissions and gaps. This is inevitable. But at the same time, haven’t we heard it all before? Hasn’t the stream of these horrors become so incessant as to be banal? And can we trust the movement at all when it’s become a white woman’s hijacking of a black woman’s rebel work?
The fatigue over #MeToo is represented somewhat bemusingly in the meta character of a rude theatre reviewer (Gabrielle Chan). Speaking loudly into her phone as Act II begins, she looks about the room and complains the show is “wasted on an audience of white middle-aged women wearing pink pussy hats.”
There are similar playful interludes between testimonies, the work of five contributing writers. Particularly resonant was a performance commentary on the self-serving nature of workplace gender policies; as though a well-crafted bit of bureaucracy is a genuine answer to structural rot.
The featuring of two prominent Australian Labour politicians (the second being Anne Aly) did tinge the performance in a distinctively red wash. This may rankle those in the audience whose voting preferences lie in a diametrical direction – especially when they remember that ‘I’m With Her’ was Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign slogan.
Who is the ‘I’ with ‘I’m with her’ anyway? In an ideal world, everyone. While this play will galvanise a female audience, it has a more ambitious transformative agenda. Because when it’s only women speaking to other women, little will change.
Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s first commissioned work, a world premiere, and an important cultural milestone for Australian feminism, this production asks men and women both: show up. Turn out. Listen.
This content is created with the support of the City of Sydney