Wednesday, November 30, 2016



Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill. 

Directed by Cathy Petocz. Production and costume design. Imogen Keen. Lighting design and operation. Gillian Schwab. Sound design cilt (Becki Whitton and Hannah de Feyter). Music coordination. Hannah de Feyter. COUP:Canberra and Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres. Ralph Indie Project. Ralph Wilson Theatre. Gorman House. Unil December 3

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

COUP;Canberra is a new and emerging theatre company, defined by Cathy Petocz’s Director’s Notes as a new arts collective with ambitious vision, supportive and inclusive process and a focus on effervescent conversation about project and practice between artists and audience. It is therefore a company with a very clearly defined mission and its choice of Caryl Churchill’s play about power and gender, Vinegar Tom is an apt introduction to the company’s committed intent.
barb barnett as Cunning Woman     

Before passing judgement on the production as the final production of the year in Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre’s Ralph Indie project, it is worth reflecting on the nature of Churchill’s 1976 collaborative work and its function as a didactic response to the Women’s Rights Act of 1970 that deemed that women were treated unequally to men. Today we may consider this as a statement of the obvious, but it does not alleviate the shame that little has progressed in real terms since that time.
It is no coincidence therefore that Churchill should place her drama during the time of witch trials and executions in Britain. It should be noted that this is no attempt to imitate Arthur Miller’s powerful indictment of the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century and by association the McCarthy era of the House Unamerican Activities, nor emulate the cathartic impact of Miller’s tragic drama. Churchill is intent on constructing a platform for dialogue and COUP under Petocz’s carefully staged direction, and supported by a strong production team and an ensemble of committed actors compel an audience to engage with the issue of gender politics and sexual power. We sit in judgement and it would be a person without compassion or a sense of justice who would view this production dispassionately. In this respect this production of Vinegar Tom succeeds.

Vinegar Tom’s plot is secondary to its theme that women are effectively oppressed by a male dominated society, shackled by society’s rigid expectations of the female’s role as mother and carer and too often sexually exploited and abused. Alice (Emma McManus) and her mother Joan (Kate Blackhurst) are condemned as witches, acting through the medium of their pet cat, Vinegar Tom, by neighbours Margery (Claire Granata) and Jack (Paul Cristofani). Alice’s friend Susan (Linda Chen) suffers the guilt of a wife who has endured miscarriages. Betty (Elektra Spencer) is branded as bewitched because she does not want to marry. Alice and Susan resort to seeking the help of the Cunning Woman (barb barnett) and the power of her potions, an act which brings them all before the Witch Finder, Packer (Nicholas Elmitt) and his sadistic, obsessed Goody (barb barnett). The perils of misguided faith are not merely the province of male domination in Churchill’s deliberately balanced perspective.
Hannah de Feyter and cilt in Vinegar Tom

In the intimate setting of the Ralph Wilson Theatre, it is the various vignettes that make the stronger impact. It takes a while for the drama of the piece to make an impact in the scene between the misogynistic Jack and his anxious wife, Margery. But from this moment each scene unfolds with purposeful intent. Original music heightens the atmosphere, lending an ominous air to the developing inevitability of the characters’ fate. However, Churchill’s lyrics are almost entirely lost in a vacuum of poor diction, sacrificing intelligence for emotion. Only Keresiya in a beautifully delivered rendition of If You Float gave the music and lyrics their inherent power. Churchill’s lyrics are set in the present as a comment on contemporary inequality, and for this alone deserve to be heard and understood.
Emma McManus and Nick Delatovic in Vinegar Tom

Forty years on and Churchill’s forceful voice of condemnation and impassioned plea for justice receives a careful and earnest treatment from Canberra’s newest theatre company. Petocz and her cast and crew approach Churchill’s rarely revived comment on gender inequality and injustice with integrity and clarity. It would be easy to discount Churchill's dialectic as dated and simplistic. That in itself would demonstrate further injustice. COUP’s production revives a timely reminder of the forces that divide, rather than unite and for this it earns an important place in Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre’s Ralph Indie Programme.

Photos by Amanda Thorson

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