Review of May 16th Performance | UQ – The Senate Room
Looking around me at the solemn-faced portraits that lined the walls of UQ’s Senate Room, I just had to laugh. If I were to describe it, I would say that it was one of those hollow chuckles that emerged from irony but eventually teetered off in a sort of disappointed realisation. Ah, I thought, there’s nothing more I enjoy than sitting in rooms that pay tribute, exclusively, to the legacy of white male power. And as I sat there, I couldn’t help but wonder – where are all the women?
I Am Woman, Hear Me played on this irony and then some. In a room that echoed with the voices of the homogenous group of men who featured on its walls, nine young women sought to paint a different picture. Although written and directed by Brigitte Freeme, the piece was the collaborative effort of the entire nine-piece ensemble. All of whom, like Freeme, are in their third year of the Queensland Conservatorium’s Bachelor of Acting degree.
Which makes sense, considering that I fell deeply into the character of each performer. A compelling combination of thoughtful writing and performance skill, I relished in seeing female characters who were actually presented in their complex entireties. Shock! Horror! An unfortunate rarity in much of the media we consume. If the performance at times relied on certain tropes of the feminine experience, it was only to subvert and contradict these.
There was a moment in the opening monologue of the play where I questioned whether a caricatural representation was really in aid of the piece. And this is a genuine question. As an audience member, I felt somewhat alienated by this, and had a moment of concern for what was to follow. A concern, I soon learnt, that was deeply unwarranted. So indeed, I do wonder if this was the intent of the creators – to have my arc of experience occur in this way. Was it a subtle reminder of the ways in which women find ourselves commonly portrayed? A clear outlaying of the rules in order to make their subsequent defiance all the more obvious?
The piece rallied around the term ‘walking contradiction’, particularly as it described the nine different woman whose stories were shared across the courthouse floor. This phrase exudes a certain rebelliousness that comes with taking ownership of an identity that doesn’t, as writer and activist Clementine Ford describes, “fit into one of the tiny little boxes allocated to women”. And this is often the hardest part – to successfully create and portray three dimensional characters. Characters who felt undeniably real in their normality, who were afforded the opportunity to exist unapologetically in their imperfections. It’s infuriating that I still have to feel pleasantly surprised every time I see a female character who exists as something more than just a plot point in the real story – of a man and his journey to self-discovery (que swoons).
Instead, we were treated to the sexual proclivities of an impassioned sex educator – provocative musical number included. We learned about the unfortunate reality of navigating phallic hesitancies as a mortician, and about how one can be a feminist and still just wish for bigger boobs. And then there were questions of what it takes to survive as a woman, particularly when there are added layers of oppression – of class, of race, of sexuality. As the actors moved in and around the senate room, implicating audiences in their endeavours, I began to feel less unsettled by the beady eyes on the wall. For this brief moment, the space was transformed and the reverberating echoes began to sound more like a chorus of recognisable voices demanding I Am Woman, Hear Me.