The last time Kendall Feaver’s work appeared on Griffin’s stage was the dense and jagged examination of mental illness The Almighty Sometimes. In this new work, Feaver takes on an equally thorny topic of sexual assault on university campuses, as well as the implications for feminism, racism, and the power imbalances that uphold these sacred institutions of knowledge.
In 2016, sexual assault on university campuses was getting a lot of media attention. The Hunting Ground (2015) documented the experience of survivors in the United States seeking justice through their universities and, in Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) launched a survey investigating sexual assault on campuses across the country. In particular, attention zeroed in on residential colleges, revealing a deeply embedded culture of sexism and racism from top to bottom. This wasn’t a new phenomena and, in one university in particular, there was plenty of evidence to stretch a pattern of violence back decades.
Now, five years later is Wherever She Wanders. Nikki (Emily Havea) is a student leader at her college, in charge of ushering all the new students safely into their new home. But she has a reputation of ruffling feathers, of coming across as a feminist nag, especially to the newly appointed college head, Dr Jo Mulligan (Fiona Press), who also happens to be a veteran of the feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s. Jo fought for things that really mattered, what’s Nikki doing complaining about some bad jokes? So, when Nikki learns of the sexual assault of a first year student in their very college, it might be the opportunity she’s needed to prove a toxic culture she’s felt all along. At first, Paige (Julia Robertson) is on board but, then, later, maybe she isn’t.
Wherever She Wanders falls into conversation with other works from throughout the years like Helen Garner’s The First Stone (1995) about a scandal at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne, David Mamet’s Oleanna (1992) inspired by the testimony of Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas, and, contemporarily, Love and Virtue (2021) by Diana Reid about another young woman raped on her first day at college. Wherever She Wanders also extended to include other remarkable real-life events like the rape and murder of a student on the University of Sydney campus in 1997, the recording of St Kevin’s College students singing a sexist chant on a Melbourne tram, and Australia’s own #MeToo movement as clumsily handled by Tracey Spicer that saw thousands of women reveal their traumatic stories with lots of promises and no outcome. All tied together by Feaver, these events, stories, and conversations formed a pattern of confrontation between the powerful and the not-so-powerful, or, more interestingly, between the single, material individual and the overwhelming, uncontainable, immaterial entity of the patriarchy.
This tension between theory and reality was what underpinned the finer scenes of the play where dense, intense conversation could turn at any moment. In one particular heated conversation between Nikki and Jo, the characters were clearly having different conversations until a single movement ruptured the facade and brought the underbelly to the surface. In these moments, the actors’ mastery of their craft was on show with the audience rapt.
Press’s Jo was hard and battle-weary after a lifetime fighting for so little reward. Whereas Havea and Robertson were fresh and impassioned, and perhaps overly-committed to a utopic future. Around them were other examples of extremes: Gerald (Mark Paguio) and Dr Michael Danner (Tony Cogin) as men too often ignorant and bumbling and Tamara (Jane Phegan) with a fierce determination for the wrong team. This cast was as rich and layered as the script, only adding to the complexity with their nuanced and convincing performances. In particular, the three central women of Press, Havea, and Robertson expertly conveyed the intensity of their characters’ positions in both opposition and alliance with each other. The consequences of their actions and inaction were present in each scene with humbling effect.
With artists at the top of their game, Tessa Leong’s role as director was about channeling the energy, finding the peaceful lulls in costume parties and remixed misogynistic songs–or as peaceful as the looming threat of violence allowed. As a conglomerate story and setting, the set design by Ella Butler was a clean collegiate room with white plaster, dark wood moulding, and a nondescript green carpet. Govin Ruben’s warm overhead lighting amplified the blandly grim atmosphere. There is something eerie about rooms that remain anonymous even as generations pass through them.
So, as more generations encounter the real buildings this one is based on, how often will they be walking into the same violent culture? Which protest will be the last?
Wherever She Wanders is running at the SBW Stables Theatre from November 5th – December 11th
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