Theatre in Melbourne is good right now. Painfully so. Shit, which closed yesterday, is not an easy play to watch but it is urgent, funny, vicious and heartbreaking. I loved it so much and wanted so badly to imprint it on my brain that I went back a second time to see it, bringing my friend (the producer of the Audio Stage podcast), Kieran Ruffles, with me. At the end of the show we sat down in the foyer and, with Paul Simon crooning away in the background, reflected on what we had just seen.
Kieran: The bit that particularly got to me was when one character asked the other two “When’s the first time you had sex?” and they both completely arced up at her: “You never fucking ask that. What’s fucking wrong with you? You never fucking ask that.”
I started thinking of all the reasons you wouldn’t ask that of a woman in that milieu. And then I thought more about it and thought maybe you shouldn’t ask that of any women – or maybe you shouldn’t ask that of anyone. But the prevalence of sexual abuse, rape and attacks amongst women is statistically demonstrably much higher.
I remember that point in my mid-teens or early-twenties when some women started to open up to me about attacks or abuse or rape that had happened to them and I realised that they were not in the minority. It is in fact something that happens to most women growing up: some form of sexual abuse or inappropriate touching by a relative or a close family friend or straight up date rapes. Guys that they trusted that they still see!
Now we’ve really diverged off the show but to stir that up? That’s… that’s something.
Fleur: That’s what you walked out of there thinking about?
Kieran: Yeah. That was one of the stronger moments for me. I also really – I found it really cool the way that the writing was able to imply that one of the characters was transgender and yet again the milieu that the character was existing in was not one that would be able to recognise that or acknowledge it for what it is. Instead they did that thing that’s you’re really, really not supposed to do with transgender people: “Show us your genitals and prove it”. That was a pretty hard-core moment of transphobia. That was kind of intense. But to get to the point where the character could express it? Just enough to get torn down? Yeah.
Fleur: They’ve created this atmosphere, this world, where they’ll never take themselves seriously. Any moment of revelation, fragility or honesty is dismissed instantaneously.
Kieran: I think they can take each other seriously but sympathy and compassion are not in the lexicon and a nuanced understanding of issues is actively discouraged.
Fleur: I thought Peta Brady’s performance was remarkable the whole way through. All of them were but Peta I found particularly fascinating because she balances that roughness and a similar level of street toughness but it is so much bravado. There is desperation and neediness under it. She vocalises what the others won’t: “I thought we’d be together. I thought they’d let us stay together! We need to stay together! I can’t – Can’t – ” There is this absolute desperation – this need to have someone tell her what to do and take control of her life.
Kieran: That moment of realising that they might be separated from each other represents almost the maximum cruelty that you can imagine being visited on these characters: to be denied understanding of a peer. Yeah. And. Yeah. The most hopeful character is the one who can’t believe that would happen and the other two are equally but oppositely convinced that that is exactly what’s going to happen.
Fleur: I think she names her plays so well, Patricia. I know it is a funny thing to mention but she does. That this title, SHIT, is plastered over these three women is such an interesting provocation to the audience as they come in. Like, go on. Think of them as shit. Think of them as total shit. They do! They think of themselves as that.
Kieran: Yeah. I didn’t realise that’s where the name came from until today. Until I was reading the one-paragraph blurb about the show. I sort of thought “alright. Wow. We’re going to be confronted by something that is very much about class as well as whatever other – “ and perhaps it is entirely about class!
Fleur: And the invisibility of a particular group of people! I think in a way she wants them to feel quite foreign on this MTC stage and to this audience. There’s a sense of “we’re going to stand in front of you, talk in Aussie accents and be so clearly of this place and time and yet dare you to judge. Dare you to question yourself as you judge us.” I think she wants us to make them alien and other, so that once we’ve pushed them as far from ourselves as possible, hopefully we’ll stop and ask how we can justify this alienation and their invisibility.
Kieran: Yeah, yeah! Within this hardcore vernacular we’ll reveal these layers of nuance to these characters, reveal –
Fleur: Such humanity!
Kieran: Such humanity, yeah!
Fleur: Such ravaged tenderness.
Kieran: Mmmm. That’s good. I like that.
Fleur: Yeah. So do I. I must remember that. Yeah.
Kieran: Yeah. The presence of men throughout – the absent presence of men –
Fleur: Yeah, how is that as a man to watch? Represent your whole gender, please!
Kieran: Yeah! Sure! No worries! No. Fairly early on I realised that the men that were going to be talked about in this play were the type of men I’ve had to grow used to hearing about and not taking it personally. You can drive yourself completely nuts with that shit as a guy. Constantly trying to go “No, but not all men!” There’s a hashtag now and by its use you will be known to be a bit of a douchebag. I don’t need to stand up and yell “hashtag notallmen”. I can just go “enough men that this needs to be talks about again and again and again. Clearly enough.” So, yay there’s exceptions! Boo there’s a rule to have an exception to. Like, fuck. I I I I don’t have to take it personally but I do have to let it show me my gender. Show me the acts of people that share my gender. Yeah.
Fleur: It also doesn’t paint a good picture of women, either. The women that they speak of other than themselves? These bitches that try but aren’t sincere…. I’m not saying that they talk about women in quite the same way but everyone who is an outsider to them is such an outsider to them. They’ve created this team – this tiny team – and – Not “they’ve created”, the world has made them into this tiny team and everyone else is on the other side. Which is understandable when you’ve suffered the kind of abuse, neglect and trauma that young people coming up through the foster system are regularly exposed to.
Kieran: Yeah, look I think the work doesn’t like any men or any women particularly. The work does not like the central characters, those central characters do not like other women and they don’t like men particularly either. That’s the whole point of the ‘Caitlyn’ character, right? They invent a person who is just nice. She is mythical. She shares some characteristics with some real women that they’ve met but is in no way based on any real women that they’ve met.
Fleur: But one of them has met a Caitlyn before and found her a bit weird when she did meet her. Caitlyn is a caricature of someone who tries to hold you – to love you and save you – in a really futile, symbolic way that means nothing to you when you are so far gone that acts of love are just confusing.
Kieran: No I think they posit Caitlyn as a genuine possible solution. Just one that has never happened. I don’t think she is posited as the mirage of comfort. But no one is coming off well. Male or female. Humans are all a bit shit.
Fleur: Well I don’t think it is that humans are all a bit shit. It is that all humans these women have come into contact with are shit. Like in that part where they talk about: “Is anyone really kind?” “I think they might be.” “Well name one.” “I can’t.” Somewhere out there is kindness but it’s never going to brush up against them. They know that it exists – they’ve seen it at a distance – but never been able to put their hands on it and really get a true understanding of what it actually means to be treated with kindness or dignity or love or respect.
Kieran: I don’t know, it feels more like some kind of societal myth that they are participating in: The Good Person. They know that they definitely are not good, that no one they’ve ever met is and yet it comes through that they still kind of believe it is possible. But it is in some rarefied other world that they don’t participate in. They don’t live in.
Fleur: Let’s leave it there. That’s heaps for me to type. You’re not allowed to say anything smart after I turn this off.
Kieran: That’s good. I really tried to concentrate my smart comments.
Fleur: So smartness ends right – three, two, one – now!
Kieran Ruffles is a musician, radio producer and producer of the podcast, Audio Stage, which I host with Jana Perkovic. We are currently in the second season and are focusing on responsibility and ethics in art. The first episode of the season featured the playwright of SHIT, Patricia Cornelius, along with fellow playwright Melissa Reeves. The most recent episode, launched today, features Jane Howard and Richard Watts talking about the ethics of criticism.