Twelve women meet in a public toilet. They talk about men and the rites of relationships between men and women. Playwright, Maureen Duffy describes her work as a black farce, a style of drama derived from the mediaeval morality where the devil and all his works were often funny as well as fearful.
Loosely based on the Greek tragedy, The Bacchae, Rites was written at a time when the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s was gathering strength. Designed to shock then, it is no less confronting today and is a brave choice for a regional community theatre group.
The opening scene features the only men in the production who march on set in a funeral like procession to carry out a ceremonial toilet installation. Amusing in an incongruous fashion, rather like a low budget B movie before the feature.
The main event starts with light hearted banter between the Rest Room supervisor, Ada and the attendant Meg. As various women gather they discuss their men and their prospects and the toilets appear a popular meeting place. Characters are representative working class women, among them three office workers, a homeless lady, two widows in their sixties and a suicidal teenager. The dialogue of the play gradually reveals the anger and resentment the women feel toward men in their romantic and sexual relationships, and at work. Things start to get darker and more sinister when a mother brings her young son (a life size doll) into the ladies and Ada demands that she send him out. A disturbing examination of the ‘child’s’ genitals fuels their misandry until the play finally erupts in a few moments of frenzied violence in which the women kill someone they believe to be a male spy, only to find that their victim is actually a woman. They then dispose of the body in the sanitary incinerator reminiscent of something straight out of a concentration camp.
Director Jo Hough has assembled a cast of varied levels of acting experience who perform their roles well. They are led by Anita Thiele as the perfectly brassy and authoritative manager Ada and Sharryn Yelland as the suitably subservient attendant Meg. Hough has the Office workers, played by Helen Clarke, Mel Jaunay and Jenni Douglas, do an amusing rendition of ‘You Don’t Own Me’ as performed in the movie The First Wives Club. With the stylised set and added references to South Australian places Hough ensures the piece is non-specific in era and quips about locations are relevant. Glena Oberscheidt and Lyn Taylor are delightful as aged widows Dot and Nellie but their transformation to murdering men haters is perhaps the least believable.
There is lots to celebrate in this production, not least some fine acting and wonderful humour, but for this reviewer the script goes to places that implies the use of hallucinogens that were freely available in the era! Seemed a good idea at the time but shockingly inappropriate with the benefit of hindsight. Not for the faint hearted.