In 2004, while accepting the Sydney Peace Prize at the University of Sydney, novelist and political activist Arundhati Roy said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” She was pushing back against the myth that oppressed groups are voiceless and need others to speak for them by acknowledging that the gaps in the discourse or debate or historical record are actually deliberate omissions and erasures. Silenced picks up on the same concerns and grapples with the social, professional, and political consequences of being one of the silenced, specifically of being a woman under patriarchy.
Structured as an ensemble piece, Linda Nicholls-Gidley’s new script moved between various theatrical modes including narrative scenes, parodies of sexist advertising, direct-to-audience monologues, and verbatim work to explore experiences of discrimination and silencing by the women characters and performers. The conversations ranged from philosophical discussion of what silence feels like to more concrete instances of racism, sexism, fatphobia, and xenophobia. It was particularly welcome to hear about first- and second-generation Australian immigrants who offered stories of discrimination in the workplace including being asked to stereotype oneself for casting directors, exclusion and alienation due to language barriers, and the complex layering of cultural and national identity experienced by many children of immigrants.
Director Carly Fisher used the various modes of the script’s scenes to play with tone and delivery to create an accumulative progression in a production that was more cathartic and informative than instructive. For example, in between some scenes were silent movement pieces choreographed to add atmospheric flow which fed into sequences with a performance poetry-esque sense of didacticism. Additionally, the lighting design by Capri Harris was elaborate and directed a lot of the production’s emotion through expressive use of colour and slow fades. In these ways Fisher attempted to inject more theatrically into the production with consideration of space and physicality as well as language.
Regarding the scenes mentioned above, when an actor addressed the audience directly to monologue about women’s oppression, they were the weakest points for their tendency to lean towards self-importance about the basics of feminist theory and obvious conclusions about discrimination. Rather than illustrating and dramatising these feminist arguments, the script favoured expositing with buzzwords like “tone policing”. The strongest elements of the production were the one narrative-based scene where pairs of women discussed microaggressions, xenophobia, and white supremacy in one Asian woman’s (Deborah Faye Lee) experience of being reprimanded for being aggressive by her white work superior (Nicholls-Gidley) and the other more personal disclosures of discrimination that clearly resonated with the performer. In these moments, the script shed its lecture framing and the characters were able to flesh out complexity, nuance, and ambiguity in their experiences of intersections of race, gender, and power imbalances.
The performances by the cast were consistent and created an easy atmosphere of friendly, casual conversation. Lee and Chanika Desilva were particularly enjoyable to watch for their self-assured confidence while Mariama Whitton added a youthful enthusiasm to the ensemble. Nicholls-Gidley, Nola Bartolo, and Sonya Kerr rounded out the performances by providing sarcasm to the parodies of sexist advertising and a recognisable mix of anger and uncertainty in revelation of women’s experiences of pain and shame.
The sentiment behind Silenced is a noble one: continuing the conversation about sexism in the modern world and acknowledging the complex social and political issues opposing feminism. However, the script struggled to rigorously engage with the feminist activism and ideology of recent decades and frequently turned to distancing didacticism to convey its message. As such, the direction equally struggled to achieve the intended impact, leaving the production in the awkward middle-ground of repeating feminist views without reaching new or unexpected conclusions.
Silenced is running at Flight Path Theatre from May 4th – 7th as part of Everything but the Kitchen Sink Festival
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