- Top Girls
Every year, when the time comes for me to teach Caryl Churchill's socialist-feminist drama Top Girls to my senior undergraduates, I wonder how they will react. A runaway success when first produced at the Royal Court in 1982 (and winner of an Obie Award that same year), the play now reads, and risks playing, as politically dated. Quite apart from its references to the rise of Thatcherism and to Joyce's technologically impoverished household (which lacks even a landline!), Top Girls is saturated with a brand of strident feminism that many current thinkers, feminist and not, dismiss as past its prime. I'm not talking here about Marlene's notoriously aggressive treatment of other women, which is key to Churchill's own feminist critique in the play; rather, I'm talking about the fact that the play unabashedly calls itself feminist in the first place, demanding—by staging—a place at the table for women of all ages, backgrounds, and skill sets. It is past the new millennium now and contemporary pop-culture politics likes to imagine that we're "over" talking about women's equal rights. How, then, does a company stage this play today and not fall into the rut of retrograde preaching? What does it take to give Top Girls the contemporary afterlife it so richly deserves?
Soulpepper Theatre, Toronto's home to performances of modern classics, offered some provocative answers to these questions in its 2007 production of the play. Director Alisa Palmer framed this production as a rich blend of Stanislavsky-meets Brecht, employing a hybrid performance style that allowed her to showcase the impressive pool of talent on her stage—including well-known Canadian artists Megan Follows and Ann-Marie MacDonald, as well as a number of lesser-known though equally well-respected local Toronto performers—while also updating and redeploying some of Churchill's most infamous Brechtian devises. Reviewers loudly praised the results, and the show quickly sold out and extended its run. For me, this thunderous reception of a stage full of nothing but women in an overtly political play represented a crucial part of the show's feminist uptake circa 2007. Toronto reviewers are notoriously cynical about both blatant theatre politics and plays that show their age, and this production could easily have gotten their backs up on both counts. Instead, Palmer gave critics what they crave—immensely satisfying, well-done real ism—within a political framework that did not jar, but pushed and pulled just enough to be quietly, startlingly effective.
One of Top Girls's most enduring, and most problematic, legacies is its debt to Brecht. Staging the verfremdungseffekt well is a challenge in the best of circumstances; throw in actors and audiences reared on psychological realism and doing Brecht Brecht's way becomes a financial risk, if not a career risk for both actors and company. In this production, Palmer smartly used the play's overtly distancing elements—the fantastical first-act dinner scene, featuring female pioneers from a range of historical periods gathered to celebrate Marlene's "success" at making managing director of the Top Girls Employment Agency; the out-of-sequence plotline; the character doubling; the overall clash-of-civilizations feel afforded by Marlene's brand of feminism, which quite visibly leaves a whole swath of women behind—to frame pitch-perfect psychological realist performances from each actor. Nobody stepped out of character in this production; on the contrary, every actor was so fully committed to her (several) characters that she easily engaged us to laugh and gasp at the dissonance produced by the collision (and collusion) of flawless character presentations with the deeply flawed sociopolitical arrangements they perpetuate. In this, stellar voice coaching from Diane Pitblado aided the performers; every actor's voice rang with an accent cued perfectly to social class and geographical location. Finally, the modest set emblematized the political efficacy of Palmer's hybrid style. It featured as backdrop lines from one of Thatcher's most notorious speeches, writ large in a...