- Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again by Alice Birch
What is most clear about the titular, feminist revolution of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is that it will take place now: tomorrow, or today, or perhaps it has already begun. The Soho Rep production of Alice Birch’s play was similarly characterized by powerful immediacy. It was led by five women barely 30 years old: behind the scenes, British playwright Birch and prolific director Lileana Blain-Cruz, and onstage, a trio of buoyant actors, Molly Bernard, Eboni Booth, and Jennifer Ikeda (as well as a forlorn representative of the patriarchy played by Daniel Abeles). The breakneck hour on the tiny, fluorescent Walker Street stage began with readiness: actors hydrated, stretched, and watched the entering audience like [End Page 670] athletes tuning up for a sprint. With a wash of voguish pink neon from lighting designer Yi Zhao and a blare of dubstep from sound designer Palmer Hefferan, the ambience was one of dernier cri.
But the questions the play began to ask in its four short acts—what is practical for women to expect? what is possible for women to expect?—were old ones. Revolt is a series of short conversations in which unnamed women and men, employers and employees, mothers, daughters, and strangers discuss the lexical and cultural conventions that fetter women. The play argues that an overthrow of the patriarchy cannot, and will not, be successful if women are sad. Under this proviso, female satisfaction and happiness are revealed to be next to impossible in sexual, social, and professional dimensions. One actor asks: “Does this [life, perhaps] pass the Bechdel test?” (87). The play answers that nothing ever passes the Bechdel test because women are always already talking about men. “Would I describe myself as a feminist?” another asks, and the play answers by saying that one is only ever a feminist because they have a mother, or are human (93). The questions are familiar and progressive, but the answers are startling and pessimistic. To Birch’s pessimism, arguably the most interesting and modern element of the play, the actors added nuanced portrayals of exhaustion, disgust, and terror. Blain-Cruz’s choices, like urgent pacing and use of an encroaching phalanx of garish house plants—a Birnam Wood for the Stepford Wife—helped explicate Birch’s sense that contemporary gender politics are unacceptably awry.
With this doubt at its core, the play focuses on a few methods of revolt. First is a refusal of idiom. A conversation between Bernard and Abeles, set in an erotic present progressive affirmative tense, investigated the language used to describe sex in a flurry of hypotheticals. Is it possible that instead of making love to, one might make love with? Or that a woman might “take” her vagina and do with it what she will—”slam,” “envelop”? (54). Birch, although inspired by the homicidal Valerie Solanas’s 1967 SCUM Manifesto, loosens and makes comic the language of anarchic, violent feminism, either through Freudian slip or a more intentional softening. Another scene, showing a woman negotiating with her boss for more time off, ended with Booth dodging the sly, obscene millennial farewell “C. U. Next Tuesday” in favor of the polite “See you on Tuesday” (69).
Another site of revolt was the female body, shown to be a battleground for immovable self-hatred and constant male incursion. The play is full of poetic images to describe, or inscribe, the body; together, these images function as a villanelle that cycles a bouquet of bluebells, a patch of potatoes, and a feast of melon, as well as the graver symbols of lost fingers and hymens. Watermelon—luscious, seedy, and wet—becomes associated with female power. In one scene, Bernard explained why she was compelled to crush and scoop the fruit over her naked body in the aisles of a supermarket, and then she served the audience clean slices on fine china. Cheese—soured, curdled breast milk—somehow becomes associated with the masculine, and is devoured as a display of power by...