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Wherever She Wanders

"digs deep into the subtleties of racism, authority and elitism"

Audrey review: Kendall Feaver delivers a dynamic, sensitive and profound portrayal of consent, sexuality and race.

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Category: Theatre
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Wherever She Wanders

Date: 17 Nov 2021

A single flame punctures the shrouded theatre as the first female Master at one of Australia’s oldest residential colleges announces a sombre resistance.

“We walk knowing that she could have been any of us.”

Set within an innominate Australian university, Kendall Feaver’s formidable new play brings forward a reality so many young women experience, with respect to the complex roles age, race, sexuality and gender play inside the microcosm of this institution.

Wherever She Wanders delivers a dynamic, sensitive and profound portrayal of consent, sexuality and race and tells of the complex and paternalistic ways in which authority and social status hold sway over the fraught and deeply personal issue of sexual assault.

The ‘r’ word hangs heavily between Josephine Mulligan’s lips (played by Fiona Press), the university’s Master for the all-female college, as third-year undergraduate student Nikki Faletau (played by Emily Havea*) breaks the silence on a sexual assault that occurred on campus the night before.

Nikki, a woman of colour of dual heritage, begs Jo, an older, whiter and superior figure, to reject the college’s protocols and support her with progressing an uncorroborated rape case, in which a first-year student is processing the confusion and shock of a drunken, passed out encounter on her very first night as a collegiate.

“What one person considers an assault, another might consider an issue of… judgement.”

Nikki, the college’s Residential Advisor, has an unsavoury existing relationship with Jo. The zealous student has a long history of calling out the college’s enabling of casual racist and sexist behaviour without consequence. Now Nikki has her fears materialise in the form of an assault on her friend – the sweet, innocent and fragile Paige Hutson (played by Julia Robertson).

Feaver digs deep into the subtleties of racism, authority and elitism. Ambushed by the college’s white authority figures after an impassioned monologue against rigid guidelines regarding the reporting and processing of sexual assault cases on campus, Nikki is threatened with campus security for raising her voice. Jo’s rejection of the notion to bypass these protocols matches Nikki’s rage. Though an illustrious protester in her own university times, Jo refuses to expand her generational understanding of rape, and in turn weaponises her whiteness and labels Nikki aggressive.

It is in such seemingly innocuous but inveterate interactions that white women dictate a scale of outrage comfortable with their understanding of the world. At the same time, Feaver weaves effortless faux pas and humour to show the cracks in patriarchy’s bridge to understanding a world beyond colonial structures and its perception of online PC culture.

The stage seeps out into reality, reflecting how one woman’s rage and stand against the hush-hush of college rape culture can be another woman’s nightmare. Paige, with the frenzy of her assault made public, is arguably left in a worse position than she was at the start of the story. As Paige and Nikki’s relationship unravels, and Jo leans into the role of devil’s advocate, the characters’ rage and passion refuses to be distilled into black and white perspectives. The college microcosm manifests dichotomised understandings of complex social issues.

This resistance is also driven by bureaucratic and societal structures that have a hold, even on those in positions of power. Though it is clear to pinpoint certain characters as antagonistic, a deeper dive into the psyche of each character shows that they play starkly different roles in the lives of their counterparts — refusing to bow to a singular perception of what is right and wrong.

Picking up on subtle hints of colonialism and broader themes of misogyny and victimhood, composer and sound designer James Brown incorporates a cappella and acoustics with voiceovers, often in tandem with video and lighting designers Susie Henderson and Govin Ruben. Where harsh white light accompanies the characters in conflict, warmer light is used to portray more delicate scenes. The use of lighting in video game-like scenes in which Nikki and Paige control their male avatars in conflict, is the most astute use of these assets aligning with the play’s themes.

Havea, Robertson and Press’ performances of characters in constant discord hold their own, alongside the supporting cast members.

Directed by Tessa Leong, Griffin Theatre’s current Associate Artistic Director, it is striking how precisely the nuances of cultural dialogues are imbued throughout the performances. Leong displays how the futility of diversity and inclusion initiatives in the face of foundational racist and sexist structures discourage authoritative figures from protecting their students.

Inflections of tone and the use of props add an incredible depth to this complex and multi-layered piece, with the stage design effortlessly moving between the various settings of a residential college, encompassing the audience in a tight bubble inside the theatre walls — but one not very different to our world outside.

*Emma Harvie will be taking on the role of Nikki Faletau for the last week of the season.

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