Distrust of female sexuality is at the core of the myth that Susie Conte blows apart in her new play… but Claire Trolio wants her to take it further.
Monstrous Woman, Tempest Theatre ·
Subiaco Arts Centre Studio, Wednesday 3 November 2021 ·
Trigger warning: this review mentions suicide
Susie Conte’s brand new play Monstrous Woman takes the myth of the Greek princess Phaedra and turns it on its head, giving her protagonist an agency that has previously been denied.
It’s par for the course for the work’s writer and director; Conte’s modus operandi is adapting classical theatre through a feminist lens.
Monstrous Woman is also borne out of Conte’s PhD candidature at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.
According to classical mythology, Phaedra falls in love with her step-son, Hippolytus. Upon confessing her love she is rejected, humiliated and cast out. Ultimately, in the classical version, Phaedra commits suicide.
I should give you a spoiler alert at this point, though it is declared in the program: Conte rewrites the ending and Phaedra chooses not to end her life.
At the core of the Phaedra myth is a distrust of female sexual desire, particularly in older women. It’s presented as grotesque, against the natural order and punishable by death. Conte’s version seeks instead to give space to this older woman’s sexuality; a worthy message.
Conte takes the lead role of Phaedra. She’s backed up by a cast of four others – Amy Welsh, Elizabeth Offer, Joel Mews and Shelby McKenzie. For the most part they’re not really playing anyone in particular but operate more like a chorus, each providing solid support to Conte. This is a clever move, making it unashamedly clear that Phaedra’s narrative is the only one they want to tell.
I really enjoyed the sound design (by Conte with Tomás Ford), a compelling combination of classical and pop music, and effects. Costume designer Jane Tero delighted the audience when what appeared to be a simple and functional set converted into a costume change before our eyes.
The majority of the work is spent creating a sense of social rejection and turmoil, and this is done well. Phaedra’s voice is overborne by the other characters’ aggressive taunting. They frequently surround Conte, speaking over her, jeering or barking like dogs. It’s strikingly effective at conveying a feeling of isolation and highlights the way in which older women are silenced and overlooked in life and in art. The use of masks adds another element of disassociation and misunderstanding.
But by focusing so heavily on Phaedra’s social rejection, there is little room left for developing her character. Monstrous Woman rounds out in a mere 40 minutes. Whilst I love punchy, concise theatre, in this instance there isn’t enough time given to create Phaedra’s persona, to understand her motivations and her desires.
The play ends with a short monologue from Phaedra, choosing to stand up to her shame and refuse her suicidal destiny. The agency given to this female lead is a welcome change, I’m all for it. But I wanted to hear the voice that Conte set out to give her, because as it is, Phaedra’s voice remains obscured.
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