By Patricia Cornelius. Directed by Donna Spencer. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, February 1. Continues until February 10
Warning: coarse language, more coarse language, and a dangerous gap between concept and execution.
Celebrated Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius earned a lot of praise in her home country for SHIT, which has its Canadian premiere in this Firehall production. The play is set in a prison, where three women—Billy, Sam, and Bob—find themselves after committing a crime. Though we piece together parts of the women’s stories—all three have been abused and discarded from an early age—the script doesn’t follow a conventional narrative. The women are more like voices than fleshed-out characters, and Cornelius seems less interested in dialogue as a tool for exposition than as a proposition for rhythmic exploration. As a result, the women sometimes feel more conceptual than real, like pieces in a game that is primarily linguistic.
The play’s preoccupation with language begins in the first scene, during which Billy drops about a hundred F-bombs in two minutes. (Example: “Who’s this fuckin fuck fuckin telling me I’m fucked up?”) Sam and Bob criticize her for overdoing the swearing; Sam describes Billy’s speech as “a thick carpet of fucks”.
It’s hard to reconcile this playful analysis with Cornelius’s comments that preface her published script: “There’s not a single moment when the three young women transcend their ugliness. There’s no indication of a better or in fact any inner life. They don’t believe in anything. They’re mean, down mouthed, down trodden, hard bit, utterly damaged women.…They believe the world is shit, that their lives are shit, that they are shit.”
Kayla Deorksen as Billy, Yoshié Bancroft as Sam, and Sharon Crandall as Bob embrace Cornelius’s wordplay like a trio of skilled slam poets, but I’m not sure that director Donna Spencer has made them or their world as mean and ugly as the playwright intends. Yes, there’s despair here—we get fragmentary glimpses of childhood neglect, foster care, and sexual exploitation—but also spirited defiance. And expansiveness: Conor Moore’s set consists of three elevated cells, but the women move around freely within and in front of them, at one point even frolicking around the bars during a scene change. What the fuck?
I applaud this production’s intention to give a voice to women who rarely get heard. But other shows have done it better, more authentically, and closer to home.