The Female of the Species

Cremorne Theatre (Queensland Theatre Company)


By Joanna Murray-Smith

Professional production

In a very clever piece of programming, Michael Gow has chosen to start QTC’s 2008 season with a farce, in its own way as good as Kath and Kim. Or you might like to call it a satire as unsubtly clever as The Simpsons.

There are soft targets in every group of our culture, and when there’s already a genuine living target in the form of a feisty and world-famous Australian feminist, confronted by and tied up in her own home by an angry young student, we can only be surprised that a play like The Female of the Species hasn’t come along before.

Germaine Greer really is a legend in her own lifetime, and she’s so much of a fearless public figure that, for many of today’s younger women as well as men of her own age, she’s become an icon of the worst aspects of feminism. I have to admit to a personal bias here, as Germaine and I were close friends as undergraduates, and so I’ve known her since we were both seventeen and, having lived through those desperate early pre-feminist days with her, I will always support her, no matter how cranky she has become. So I was prepared to be very angry about this play.

And there was plenty for someone like me to be angry about in the beginning. Margot Mason, the GG figure in this play, is a foul-mouthed, arrogant, self-obsessed academic who, at this stage of her life, is living off her reputation while suffering from writer’s block. She’s set up by playwright Joanna Murray-Smith as an Aunt Sally, worthy of all the scorn we can pour on her. And when she is confronted by one of her recent students, whose face she can’t even remember and whose work she has disparaged, and who blames her for destroying women’s lives because of the positional shifts she has made over forty years of writing, it seems the set-up is complete.

It’s such an obvious set-up, too, the generational argument between the first-wave feminists who did all the hard work (special pleading here from me, of course!) and their daughters and granddaughters who either (a) take it all for granted or (b) turn their backs on it or (c) blame the first-wavers for any unfortunate consequences that have arisen in forty years, that I was again prepared to be angry. Cheap shots at the pioneers! It’s as bad as reviling the suffragettes. Why should Margot be blamed because Molly’s mother gave up her baby for adoption, following Margot’s advice in the 1990s, or because she later threw herself under a train clutching a copy of Margot’s The Cerebral Vagina? Is this Margot’s fault, and does she deserve to be murdered because of it? Are all philosophical thinkers to be blamed if their readers follow them unthinkingly?

We’re now about 15 minutes into the play, and thankfully the angry young gun-toting student Molly (played with irritating perspicuity by Francesca Savige) now becomes a soft target herself, and we lose our sympathy for her as she becomes a figure of mockery. Enter then, in succession, Margot’s own domesticated daughter Tess (Georgina Symes in a classic mother-daughter love-hate role play), who has walked out on her husband and kids, and come to her mother’s for a Bex and a nice lie down, or something like that. She immediately bonds with the young terrorist, until the next character appears, Andrew Buchanan in masterly form as her pompous soft-centred SNAG of a husband, so concerned that she has left the kids unattended, but so solicitous about her, that he forgets to be angry, and keeps popping out his New Age platitudinous malapropisms to the extent that the audience is now falling out of their chairs with laughter, and the young terrorist shifts loyalties and casts a lusty eye on him.

Who’s next, who’s next? In comes a tall super-sexy black taxi-driver (Kenneth Ransom, please don’t leave us and go to Perth) wanting to make a phone call to get his taxi unbogged from the muddy drive, only to be confronted by some gun-wielding cast member or other — the gun has changed hands many times by this stage. He manages to grab the gun himself, terrorises everyone except Margot’s housewife daughter Tess, who decides she likes the strong masterly type, and demands a bit of rough trade with him.

Next on the scene is Margot’s publisher Theo Hanover, from whom she has been trying to hide the fact of her writer’s block, and there were sighs and palpitations all round as Brisbane’s favourite son, Anthony Phelan, made a welcome return from Sydney to play this bluff and almost believable character — and I’m not going to tell you what truths are revealed, but you won’t be surprised.

And so it gets sillier and sillier (and funnier, I have to say), until Margot is vindicated when she reveals herself to be the most level-headed of all of them, everyone changes partners, and all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds, as Pangloss tried to pretend in Voltaire’s classic farce Candide, and we all went home satisfied.

Sure, it was loud and brassy and very very silly. Sure, some of the actors overdid the voice projection and underestimated the acoustics of the Cremorne Theatre. Sure, it was full of platitudes and phoney intellectualism. But it was good for a laugh, and a joy to see Burns, Buchanan, Ransom and Phelan in particular having fun just hamming it up, and what more can I say than it was a Nice Night’s Entertainment in capital letters of course.

Playing until 15 March 2008: Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday-Saturday 7.30pm, matinees Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm

Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 13th February 2008)