Reviewer: Fergus Morgan
Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is a play that doesn’t behave as expected. It disintegrates, breaking boundaries of form and language, wrestling with inconceivably large issues, and frantically pursuing diverse streams of thought, until it breaches incomprehensibility. But then, it is a play about women not behaving as expected, ferociously exposing gender hypocrisy after gender hypocrisy to the point where the fundamentals of society seem inexcusably corrupt. So perhaps there is method in Birch’s madness.
Essentially, Revolt is a 70-minute, four-handed, experimental battle-cry for third-wave feminism. It begins with a series of taut, rapid-fire conversations, each forensically isolating an aspect of female oppression in contemporary, ‘liberal’ society. A man graphically describes how he would like to have sex with his date. A woman rebuts her boyfriend’s marriage proposal. A boss cannot comprehend why her employee wants Mondays off. Two supermarket officials berate a woman for stripping off in aisle seven.
In these short scenes, Birch elegantly reveals the implicit violence in male sexual language, the uncomfortable historical connections between marriage and ownership, the sheer ridiculousness of society’s obsession with women’s appearances, and much, much more. This is articulate, persuasive, witty, and – crucially – accessible stuff.
Towards the latter end of Revolt, however, things start to unravel: dialogue shifts tonally with increasing frequency, conversations become impenetrably cryptic, and language itself starts to break down. The result is a cacophonous chorus of voices and a bewildering collage of symbols and violence. Birch’s meta-theatrical point, one suspects, is that upon close inspection, the very fabric of civilisation – our language and our drama included – is riven with misogyny and inconsistency, so we must reject it. We must rip everything up and start again.
The irony is that in freeing herself from the messy, imperfect constraints of convention, Birch grows infinitely less articulate. Arguments about fertility, maternity, pornography and more fail to assert themselves; they are briefly considered, then thrown back into the maelstrom of disjointed words and elusive thoughts. It’s a disappointingly incoherent second act, following a piercingly coherent first and arriving at a dissonantly bleak declaration of war.
Erica Whyman’s RSC production – which started life at Stratford’s new Other Place before running at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre during the Fringe – is slick and stylish, boasting four polished performances from Robert Boulter, Emmanuella Cole, Emma Fielding and Beth Park. It grows needlessly rife with oblique symbolism as it progresses – bluebells, melons and red dust all have some significance – but otherwise handles Birch’s febrile text with engrossing verve. And Madeleine Girling’s design – a simple stage backed by a dark screen, which periodically flashes Birch’s commands to revolutionise society – is compellingly stark.
Birch is undeniably a hugely important new voice in British drama, a disciple of Katie Mitchell and Sarah Kane – note the sly nod to Saved towards the end of Revolt – with a virtuoso control of language and a galvanising sense of purpose. Revolt is not her masterpiece, but although it may express its fervent, vital ideas with varying articulacy, it declares Birch’s ambition and potential without a shred of ambiguity.
Runs until 17 September 2016 | Image: RSC/Richard Lakos