Carousel | Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble (MUSE)

Carousel sells itself as a misunderstood love story: Julie, a respectable yet unusual girl, falls in love with the rough-around-the-edges Billy, a carousel barker with a seedy background. Things are difficult from the beginning as Billy takes out his anger and paranoia around marriage on Julie, until he eventually hits her. In a money-making scheme gone wrong, Billy unexpectedly dies and is given the chance for a redemption arc that requires a supernatural element.

Debuting in the mid-20th century and based on a novel written decades earlier, this Rodgers and Hammerstein remains one of their most controversial for its depiction of domestic violence as a normalised inevitability. While Billy (Jack Dawson) is offered a chance to redeem himself, Julie (Caitlin Rose) is afforded no relief and is instead written as complicit in her own abuse. This is a show that hasn’t aged well and upholds harmful attitudes and values of femininity and love.

There is an attempt in the text to present an alternate perspective in the peers of the young couple, especially in Julie’s best friend Carrie (Phoebe Clark), whose romantic bliss is a painful contrast. Excepting, of course, the song in which the women argue it doesn’t matter what your husband does to you as long as you love him, because you are his, after all.

Amongst all of it, Clark’s portrayal of Carrie as a vocal, snappy, and enthusiastic young woman breathes life into a show where nearly every other woman is busy being manhandled or moping about the men in their lives. Carrie is funny and critical and does her utmost to be a good friend to Julie. Her partnership with Enoch (Alexander Caldwell) is sweet and easy to watch.

Matt Hourigan’s set design is beautiful and makes great use of an oddly wide stage. Wood cut-offs, sand, and silhouettes of carousel horses capture the rough-and-ready atmosphere of the carousel mob well. The lighting design could have striven to take better advantage of opportunities for creativity like in moonlight or carnival-esque multi-coloured displays. Having the band behind the audience filled the space very well, particularly on Billy’s more booming solos.

Similarly, the choreography, also developed by Hourigan with Charlotte Middleton, filled the narrow stage with laughter and frivolity. There was excellent use of natural sound and various levels to keep each performance dynamic and interesting. This production had a particular interest in dance, opening with a tribute to the carnival scene, in which the musical is set, and regularly using dance for dreamy, reflective moments. The group choreography formed the heart of the production, though, representing the connection of the community with the tension between men and women, often playful until its not.

There’s an argument for the continued performance of out-dated productions un-edited because of their nostalgia or, for more problematic pieces, because the representation of violence or oppression is shocking enough for modern audiences to denigrate it. The complication of this argument being applied to this production in particular is available in the director’s note. Hourigan attempts to combat criticism of the musical by citing best friend character, Carrie, as the voice of the writers, the voice of reason, that condemns Billy’s mistreatment of Julie. Except, even the director’s summary of events includes harmful depictions of violence against women: he isolates Billy’s behaviour to a single instance of physical violence that Julie justifies because she is “blinded by her love [for him]”. This interpretation of the work perpetuates violence and abusive behaviour within personal relationships in two ways. Firstly, it shrinks understanding of abuse into a single act of physical violence and appoints this act as the only instance of real abuse. And, yet again, the audience is sold the story of the good girl falling in love with the bad boy, who she stays with because she secretly wants to be treated badly. We’re assured that all of this mistreatment could have been avoided if Julie didn’t love Billy so much; Nevermind the systemic and cultural circumstances that trap women in abusive relationships. The onus of not falling for a violent man and not staying with him always lie with the woman.

The exposure argument for artistic representations of abuse, discrimination, and oppression isn’t enough. We know that the stories we’re told and the images we see matter in how we construct ourselves and determine what is normal and acceptable in our culture. The story of Julie and Billy is familiar because all of use have heard that sometimes men can’t control themselves, and the best kind of wife is a meek one, and what do you expect anyway getting involved with a guy like that? In stories like this, violence is passion and love is sacrifice; but we know better now. That’s not to say stories of abuse shouldn’t be told, only that a director has a responsibility to consider the output of the story they’re telling. The failure to appropriately frame this storyline with lines like, “It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all”, indicates directorial negligence. The original book and lyrics for Carousel include harmful depictions of the mistreatment and abuse of women, and to present those depictions unchanged and unchallenged to a 2018 audience is not good enough.

Carousel is running at PACT Centre for Emerging Artists from August 8th – 11th.

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