Directed by Claudia Barrie
Mad March Hare Productions and Outhouse Theatre Co
Kings Cross Theatre
244-248 William Street, Kings Cross
Season: 28 July – 19 August
If you only go to the theatre once in 2017, now is the time to do it. Claudia Barrie's production of the Ruby Rae Spiegel play, Dry Land, is exactly the response we need in our contemporary climate - one that pushes women and girls into hopelessly helpless situations and then condemns them for being there. In an age where Trump's America is defunding Planned Parenthood and in some states, enabling employers to fire women who use contraception or have an abortion... in an age where having an abortion remains in the criminal code in multiple states in Australia allowing for the prosecution of both the receiver of the abortion and of the doctor performing it... safe access to abortion, as well as surrounding discourse and treatment of mental illness, is more relevant than ever. Spiegel's play speaks with harrowing honesty and erosive wit, brought to life under Barrie's unbridled directorial vigour and through incisive performances that hit you hard in the best way possible.
This play doesn't try to point fingers or place blame. There are no good people and bad people. Rather we have people doing their best to cope in their own given circumstances. Everyone's really just doing the best they can. At the beginning of the play, Amy is asking Ester to punch her in the stomach over and over again in a swimming pool changing room. There is no focus on the question of the moral right or wrong of abortion – it’s not relevant. The reality of Amy’s situation is that she has an unwanted and unplanned pregnancy and she is willing to take any measure to abort the baby. Her mum mustn’t know and regardless, she doesn’t have the financial means to go to an abortion clinic. The play deals with the circumstances at hand, in Amy’s real life – not at a conceptual level that so often frames the discourse surrounding abortion and forgets the very real implications for women and girls.
Claudia Barrie’s daring direction creates a visceral experience for the audience – not because she hams up an experience of abortion, but rather through her boldness to insist on the truth being shown. Barrie proves yet again a directorial chutzpah that has the capacity to thrill and compel audiences. Patricia Pemberton is gutsy and raw as Amy, fiercely independent and yet at times gasping a desperate call for help. Pemberton embraces the muck and pain of Amy’s situation and puts it on stage in a way the audience cannot ignore. Sarah Meacham plays the committed and talented swimmer Ester, riddled with harmful perfectionism and burdening expectations. Meacham does so with astute focus and resounding authenticity. Together, Pemberton and Meacham illustrate a beautiful relationship between young women – not one characterised by tired stereotypes or removed from the difficulties of human relations, but rather a commitment to ally together in grim times. A stark contrast is provided in Michelle Ny’s amusing and relatable performance as Reba, free-spirited, oblivious and providing welcome comic relief. Charles Upton gives a touching and humorous performance as Victor, the only physical male presence in the play. Victor’s perspective offers an outsider’s insight into the complexity of internalised sexism experienced by Amy, as well as demonstrating the power of human support and connection when mental illness is taking its toll. A poignant moment in the play is when Victor comforts Ester, applying calamine lotion to her rash, garnered by her anxiety-ridden refusal to remove her swimsuit for a week. His words of encouragement, “you’re doing great”, mean so much.
Dry Land shows the searing reality of what happens when we close off access to safe abortion. It’s a grimy, excruciating reality that stabs women and girls who are already hurting and in vulnerable positions. But this is not an overtly didactic play, it is a production grounded in storytelling and emotion that serves to fortify its power. Considering 1 in 3 women in Australia will have an abortion in her lifetime, it speaks volumes that this play brings to the forefront issues and experiences we don’t like to talk about without the use of boundless euphemisms. Frequently topics such as abortion and mental illness are sterilised so that the messiness, pain and grit is washed out of the picture. Dry Land isn’t afraid to show us the truth. It is deeply evocative, gut-wrenching, and it broke my heart – you must see it for yourself.