A friend of mine is fond of the phrase “grow a vagina”, in place of the more commonly used “grow a pair”, or all the myriad variations of that phrase which basically mean “get on with it”. It’s a fair point – the vagina is of course a better metaphor for strength and resilience than the sensitive, shrivelling testicle. This serves as a good example of the way patriarchy has long influenced language, distorted biological reality and promoted myths, many of which are rarely questioned. In The Scum Manifesto, Valerie Solanas took this argument to the extreme, insisting that men suffered from “pussy envy” and claimed female characteristics, such as “strength”, “independence”, “vitality”, “decisiveness” and, rather brilliantly, general “grooviness” as their own, while projecting onto the female fundamentally male traits such as vanity, frivolity and weakness.
Alice Birch’s play Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, playing at the Traverse Theatre as part of the Fringe (after a debut production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014), asks similar questions regarding the way we use language. Through various dialogues (rather than a linear narrative), it examines expectations we have of the sexes – in body and sex, and in work and society – which are ultimately oppressive and damaging. Revolutionary instruction announces and accompanies the onstage action, as one male and three female actors change character and play out increasingly surreal scenarios.
The first act, Revolutionise the Language (Invert It), dissects clichés of sex talk to comic effect. The male character’s (Robert Boulter) erotic longings are subverted by the female character (Emmanuella Cole) when her anger grows at his desire to tell her what he wants to do to her rather than with her. He initially proclaims ‘I am going to take my cock…’, but the verbal power play that ensues ends with the female character pronouncing, to much audience laughter, ‘I am blanketing and locking you and draining the life of you with my massive, structured, beautifully-built, almighty vagina!’
Other scenes don’t work so well. Revolutionise the Work (Engage with It) shows a woman telling her boss that she no longer wants to work Mondays, to an incredulous response and a protest that there are now vending machines and a gym. This exchange, albeit entertainingly absurd, only serves to highlight the fact that the play only seems to focus on certain types of women, and as such the attempt to engage with the economic position of women feels like the work of someone with little conception of the immense and particular struggle of poor women, both currently and throughout history. In his review for The Stage, Stewart Pringle also criticised the play’s ‘total focus on upwardly mobile, middle class women,’ and concluded that ‘it fails to engage with intersectionality.’
The darkly funny act Revolutionise The Body (Make It Sexually Available. Constantly) where a woman exposes herself in the supermarket, is far more successful in making its point. Birch’s original and creative command of language is devastating in showing the female body as a meat which is sold and bargained for, and which we turn away from disgusted if it doesn’t meet our standards. The woman is told no one wanted to see her “little sausage legs”, “pork belly” or “curdled flab.”
The point when the play started to feel pretentious rather than powerful was when the male character addresses the audience and asks ‘Does this pass the Bechdel test?’ to tittering. It felt smug, posturing and about as subversive as an episode of QI. The assumption that the audience will “get” that reference reinforced the chattering class demographic that the work is aimed at, and all the more highlighted the lack of class consciousness in this confused depiction of feminist revolt.
In a recent interview, Birch was quoted as saying ‘I don’t know that I set out to write something political,’ which is a pretty staggering statement for a piece of work that has the word revolt in the title twice. Coupled with the last scenes of the play, where the staging gets very messy and the actors are left shouting slogans into the audience and throwing things around, it is clear that this is a bold but ultimately flawed work. While an original and talented voice, Birch fails to engage seriously with the questions her writing asks.