That Bloody Woman
by Luke Di Somma and Gregory Cooper
Auckland Music Theatre
17th July 2021
You had me at Fuck Fuck Fuckity Fuck.
That’s not strictly true: you had me from the moment the house lights went down, when the wickedly, gorgeously clad cast strode out and the men sat down, silent, as the women took the stage. And we were off, my strident little feminist heart skipping a beat at the delicious sight of *gasp* female armpit hair, and again when that bloody woman herself appeared, announcing herself by reclaiming that word I can’t repeat here. Rhymes with hunt.
Way to own it, sister, I silently cheered. Now tell us your story.
Accompanied by a slick, tight band, Brie Hill as Kate Sheppard took us on a wild ride through the herstory of the suffrage movement in New Zealand, culminating in the passing of the Electoral Act 1893, which, in a world first, granted New Zealand women the right to vote. Her performance was mesmerising, funny, clever, but never overdone. The temptation could be to play Kate too stridently; too badass. Hill got it just right, ensuring that her most powerful moments were, in fact, in the hush: the ode to her dead son in the second act, for example, was a standout.
Hill was surrounded and supported by the most glorious band of renegade suffragettes you could ever ask for, each one a star, each one granted her moment to shine by a cleverly structured plot that took occasional detours but never got sidetracked.
Again, their greatest power wasn’t in the raucous screech of protest, the insistent beat of anger and determination; it was in the moments of vulnerability: Ada Wells (Kelly Lim Harris) capturing the denial and longing of women trapped in domestic violence in “Quarter Acre Dream”; Jennie Lovell-Smith (Kate Castle) resigned to a marriage with a man who doesn’t love her (“The Man with Two Wives”), her voice soaring and insistent, perfectly heartbroken.
Special shout-out to Emily Walker, who cleverly captured the swagger and the gravel of Sir John Ballance. Should she ever wish to put acting to one side, there’s a future for her in male voiceover infomercial work.
The men were equally impressive, their most captivating moments coming as they postured and thumped and wound through stunning choreography by Teesh Szabo. I’m always taken by surprise by Szabo’s work. She makes bodies move in a way that shocks and delights. It’s inventive and sexy and gritty and becomes another character on the stage, integral to the story. The men owned it.
And then came their leader, King Dick (Richard Seddon, played by Steve King), and you could smell the testosterone and bastardry lifting ten notches, and he was patronising patriarchy and mafia boss and Prince and Coronation Street baddie all rolled into one. An unfortunate Achilles incident at dress rehearsal meant King was relegated to a seat on the side for most of the show, but for me, this didn’t detract. In fact, one could see it as an apt metaphor: big dick energy ultimately rendered impotent by the power and determination of women. The puppet-like leers of his man gang, fixed and ineffectual, only served to highlight this as they were stared down in “The Line” by women furious and animated and individuated. Alive.
There’s an element of cultural cringe in New Zealand. For some reason some of us think we’re not quite up to it; that New Zealand art (in its widest sense) is somehow “less than”. We suck our teeth and watch and listen with a kind of affectionate horror, hardly daring to hope. There was no such awkwardness with this show. It was tone-perfect from start to stop. The songs served the story, no word was redundant, no tune an easy fallback position. Nadia Lim was with us in spirit. “Slice of Heaven” made a cameo. There was a sheep somewhere, I’m sure of it. I spotted the milk bottles from my childhood. It was all fabulous.
I felt proud: proud to be a New Zealander, proud to be a woman, proud to be a part of the New Zealand theatre community.
A word on the sound: it’s desperately hard to balance band and vocals in a rock musical, and this story-driven rockfest was always going to be a challenge. Sam Mence and his team mostly got it right: my only very minor niggle was a few garbled words from ensemble, a few muffled lines. But that was more a performance issue than a sound one, perhaps. It didn’t detract; the overall quality was just too good.
A word on the set: minimal. Just right. Loved the lampshades and lino tiles. Four screens were used to great effect; Miss 14, my date for the evening, said it helped bring history to life for her as she saw what the characters on the stage looked like in real life. I just liked the giant word FUCK.
Which brings me full circle, to “Fuck Fuck Fuckity Fuck”. I was in the amusingly awkward situation of wanting to simultaneously cover Miss 14’s ears, while also urging her to soak in every single fuck: here was a group of women, angry, insistent, profane, making themselves heard, owning the right to be strong and loud, destroying stuff. What a delight.
She’s walking round the house singing it still. The world was made for women too, and thanks to historical powerhouses like Kate Sheppard, she knows it.
For my money, this was Director Richard Neame’s best outing yet.
Enough? More than.