SHIT by Patricia Cornelius
Tom Healey on the latest release from Red Door
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In my foreword for Patricia’s other play in this collection (LOVE) I outed myself as a Patricia Corneliusophile. Here is the living proof – the first of the Red Door playwrights with a second play in the collection.
When SHIT opened at NEON/MTC in mid 2015 it caused a critical and word-of-mouth storm. It was the hottest ticket in town (with the shortest season) and left many wondering – some in print – just why Cornelius’ writing, so celebrated in the award zone (she has won just about every major Australian playwrighting award going) is so apparently neglected by the mainstream programming companies.
There is an uncomfortable truth here, which is that we are in a circle of fear when it comes to the theatre that we make. Despite the fact that both Melbourne Theatre Company (who did, it must be pointed out, take the risk of placing it within the NEON program) and the Sydney Theatre Company receive large subsidies, the percentage they need in box-office uptake is enormous in relation to the funding they receive. Somehow, we have maneuvered ourselves into a situation where subsidized companies are unable to take the risks many of us feel they are subsidized to take in the first place.
As its title suggests, SHIT is an uncompromising piece although, like much of Patricia’s work, unexpectedly funny as well. We meet three women with androgynous names (Bobby, Sam and Billy) and Cornelius’ intriguing ‘instructions’ to the actors are a clue as to where we are headed in this world:
There’s not a single moment when the three young women transcend their ugliness.
There’s no indication of a better or in fact any inner life.
They don’t believe in anything.
They’re mean, down mouthed, down trodden, hard bit, utterly damaged women.
They’re neither salt of the earth nor sexy.
They love no one and no one loves them.
They believe the world is shit, that their lives are shit, that they are shit.
In nearly 30 years of reading new work, that is the most alarming and extraordinary (and exciting!) introduction to a play I have ever come across. In my first read of it I turned the pages somewhat nervously – What was I going to read that could live up to this toughness? And then the play (as Patricia’s writing always does) starts to sing to you. These women are tough, and angry, and hurt but they are also survivors, and this is what Cornelius manages with such care and empathy. Nine times out of ten, a play tackling such territory ends up as an overcoming-the-odds ‘Movie of the Week’ type play, but SHIT is different. There is an odd kind of optimism that surges through the text, perhaps better described as a black humour and energy that keeps them moving forward. It is this aspect of living – this deeply human urge to carry on – that marks this play out as remarkable in its ‘grunge’ genre. There is none of the kind of spiritual hopelessness that is often a hallmark of such plays, no navel-gazing ‘Why Me?’ sentiments. No complaining about the cards that have been dealt, just a rough and tumble play of the hand.
I am particularly pleased to be publishing a play with such brilliant and sharply nuanced roles for three women. I think any actress would have an absolute ball with these roles and the challenges they raise, both formal and emotional. SHIT is also packed with the beautifully compressed and sophisticated poetry for which Cornelius is so admired. As Anne-Marie Peard on Aussie Theatre wrote of the original production:
Cornelius’s writing leaves me shaking. Her dialogue sounds natural but it isn’t like spoken language. She makes the profane poetic and lets language be so much more than words with assumed meaning. Her text has shape and rhythm and feels like it’s beating to the heartbeats of her characters.
The nervousness I referred to earlier as I began to read the play for the first time is enacted through one of its scenes as the women laugh about how easy it is to scare middle-class people. Here, Cornelius puts her finger on the sharp class division that we as a nation spend so much energy denying, and it is this kind of explosive power in the writing - its simplicity of approach and its absolute authority of its observation - that makes it so profound, so crisp and so moving.
Enjoy it! And if you do, spread the word. This play needs to be done all over Australia.
Tom Healey, March 2016
AustralianPlays.org Literary Manager and curator of its Red Door imprint
Tom Healey in conversation with Patricia Cornelius