Content and trigger warning: This production contains coarse language, and spoken references to historical violence.
The Curators’ Theatre have opened their 2021 season with the Australian premiere of The Revolutionists by American playwright Lauren Gunderson. Directed and designed by Michael Beh, this metatheatrical dramatic comedy is an ambitious work bursting with colour, glamour, and rage as it sets out to tackle ideas of feminism, abolition, monarchy, patriotism, and revolution.
Written in 2016, The Revolutionists is full of the anger and energy that marked the lead-up to the Trump presidency for many. Set in Paris, 1793, under the shadow of the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, audiences are drawn into the luxurious salon of French feminist playwright and political activist Olympe de Gouges and take their seats along the walls. They are soon joined by Marianne Angelle, a freedom fighter from Saint-Domingue who has come to Paris to campaign for the abolition of slavery and freedom from colonial oppression. Young Charlotte Corday soon joins them, terrifyingly certain as she prepares to assassinate the radical journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub, and the strange sisterhood is completed by former queen Marie Antoinette, who glides in to tell her side of the story. In this dream fugue, the women share their frustrations and fears, their convictions, and their hopes for a better and more equal future.
More broadly, the work questions the nature of art, the accessibility of theatre, and the role of storytelling in shaping a cultural narrative…including who is removed from that narrative. The pacing slumped in places, especially as the playwright sought common ground for the characters in marriage and motherhood, but considering the scope of themes addressed in the work the tension was well-balanced overall.
The Revolutionists is a visually exciting production full of colour and texture, from flowers and velvet draperies to the swishing of skirts, the shimmer of sequins, and the sway of towering headpieces. The costumes, co-designed by Michael Beh and Jan Mandrusiack, are truly a high point and were shown off to full effect by cabaret and catwalk interludes throughout, with choreography by Sarah O’Neill. Lighting designed and operated by Bethany Scott added drama to the key moments and directed the eye of the audience across the long stage space, complemented by music direction and arrangement by Paul C McD. The musical interludes were brilliantly performed – Asabi Goodman’s breathtaking rendition of Feelin’ Good; Lauren Roche’s rock’n’roll So What; Lisa Hickey’s wistful At Seventeen – although they didn’t feel particularly connected to the narrative action.
The four leading ladies delivered a truly outstanding performance, their immense energy filling every corner of the hall with such passion and fear and rage that you could be moved to tears. Each actor commanded attention without overpowering the others, and each brought light and shade to their character in moments of power and vulnerability, balanced with excellent comedic timing from all.
Amanda McErlean presented a comedic caricature of Marie Antoinette, spliced with moments of clarity and profundity that suggested her vapid self-interest was a mask, a barrier that could be taken down. Lauren Roche was haughty and furious as Charlotte Corday, dreaming of martyrdom for her cause, and Lisa Hickey brought out the melodrama of Olympe de Gouges, wide-eyed and waxing lyrical, increasingly fearful as her companions were led to execution. Asabi Goodman’s Marianne Angelle, by contrast, was self-assured and steely throughout, although her accent became less pronounced as the work progressed.
Each actor brought a distinct voice to their character, although the affected French accents occasionally tipped over into questionable territory as they performed other, minor, characters, muttering miscellaneous French words like “croissant” in an exaggerated way.
Of the metatheatre I have seen, this work stands out in drawing all its strands together for a satisfying conclusion, and it is a thrilling ride to get there. The Revolutionists is a deliciously lavish production bursting with feathers, fury, and a refusal to be ignored.