Written by Mary Kettle
Directed by Milly Grant
Performed by Mary Kettle and Milly Grant
Ensemble performed by Paige Elgar, Lisa Clarke and Metu Toso
Tuesday 4th and Wednesday 5th November
Manukau Institute of Technology
Faculty of Creative Arts
She is a traditional dramatic theatre piece written and performed by Mary Kettle and directed and performed by Milly Grant. Both women have recently studied at Manukau Institute of Technology’s School of Performing Arts, and have teamed up for Mary’s final year assessment to present an hour-length work inspired by her own accounts of deep emotional pain and suffering. The show is driven by the journey of central character Katherine (played by Mary), whose devastating mental plummet raises important questions around female abuse and the systems that have a hand in contributing to emotional unwell-being in contemporary women.
Due to my past role as lecturer to both Milly and Mary, I feel it more appropriate to respond to the ideas and questions raised by the artefact rather than give a conventional reviewer rendering whereby artists are put under scrutiny. I also feel it important to honour and respect the intense emotional sacrifice and baring of soul and body made throughout the work, which for me places She into an untouchable realm of taonga. Discussions on what elements of the work are “successful” or not are replaced by a conversation on what this taonga unearths.
In her plight towards mental institutionalisation, Katherine takes us on an annihilating excursion of raw emotional expression. Inside the privacy and secrecy of a bedroom and a therapist's couch, we learn of her unfortunate relations with men, shattering memories of her mother and distressing experiences as a mother herself. Katherine bares her wounded soul and unlocks hidden chambers of pain that have been pushed down to the underbelly of her existence. We as audience are flies on the wall, witness to secret feminine turmoil. It is confronting to experience fully-fledged emotion like this, to hear the haunting and unusual sounds of pain on the feminine vocal chords, to see the feminine body contort and twist in spontaneous choreography as it purges itself of afflictions. How often in a lifetime do we witness such an event? How often do we allow ourselves to go to these places of true self-recognition? The experience is transformational - we are taken right to the eye of the storm, we share its pukana gaze, and after it dissipates we are cleansed and nourished by the storm’s waters.
It is my belief that through the patriarchal mechanics of colonial land domination, knowledge around emotional healing held by our female ancestors all over the world became lost - both hidden and safeguarded by the women themselves to the point of near extinction, and fearfully labelled by colonial entities as sinister and evil. Emotional knowledge is not something that is ingrained into our everyday lives, nor recognised and developed through our mainstream educational systems. We are not given tools to safely deal with emotional pain and suffering. So how do we take care of ourselves? How do we heal? Do we lock our pain away? Do we express it? In this instance, Mary has utilised the theatre and her autobiographical character Katherine to heal her own personal pain. In doing so she gives her audience inspiration to do the same. She suggests that perhaps the body has a capacity to heal its’ own suffering through being deeply submerged in emotion itself.
Katherine is joined on her anguished journey by a supporting character (played by Milly), introduced as a “friend” but later revealed to be an imagined entity in Katherine’s head. Milly brings an important layering of dynamics to the work, embodying stark contrasts of golden light and shadowy dark. Through their close-knit relationship and apparent love for each other, we laugh with Katherine and her friend as they humorously recount personal stories. We delight in their sharing of private jokes and innocent girly mischief. It seems that Katherine needs her friend to remind her to laugh, to find the slivers of hope in her life. But as the unravelling of the story takes hold, this “friend” comes to represent the unhealthy destruction that is present in toxic female friendships, and in our own inner dialogue with ourselves. She satiates Katherine’s dark side and plays into her vulnerabilities, always appearing to be doing the right thing for her but ultimately pulling her way down into the caves of self hatred. It is intriguing to see this examination of inter-female dynamics, a complexity to a story that could have easily plundered into a one dimensional male-bashing narrative.
What I find perhaps most despairing and unsettling about Katherine is the relentless narcissism that plagues her. She is bound by the desire to attain total aesthetic perfection, which manifests in an intimidating and hyper-real Barbie Doll appearance. She hides behind a sickly-sweet veneer that is highly sexualised - the short red dress and long blonde hair that she dons for the majority of the piece is a giddying symbol of pleasure. It simultaneously empowers and represses her, and invokes the long line of tragic theatre beauties that have come before. As she tottles off to her therapist in death-fetish heels, the air becomes thick with these old sex ghosts, these beauties of sadness and passion. She twitches in front of the mirror endlessly, flicking her hair from side to side and back again, posing and reposing, walking away and walking back, dressing and undressing, stretching skin, lifting breasts, practising conversations. She is contained inside her own image, self-obsessed and wound up by the dysmorphic vision looking back at her. She wants to please and seduce. She wants to disappear.
What contributes to this obsession in Katherine? Are all women poisoned by this suffering, this madness, even if just a little? And how is this behaviour activated? She suggests that it is in the dynamics of how we treat each other - how mens’ sexual objectification of women might drive them to the point of mental torment, and how women might condemn each other’s true beauty through their own fears and lack of self worth. Perhaps there is a broader context to it all though - a larger machine that controls us and hinders our ability to accept all physical and emotional honesties. What role does our society’s media and visual culture have to play in how we behave? What is beauty? Who sets the lens we look through? Can anyone really be blamed for inflicting pain if we are in fact all oppressed by larger systems of control?
She is a work that provokes many open-ended questions and ideas, not only in its content but in how it is made. I am interested and excited by the tuaakana mentorship of Milly’s direction, where she has offered Mary the teachings and guidance of an older sister rather than that of an elder traditional to actor/director relationships. It is evident that Milly has managed to draw real performance magic from Mary, and that the two have collaborated in a way that feels fresh. Perhaps it is through the sacred exchanges of truth and understanding found only in sisterly relationships that the work is able to find itself. Interestingly, this dynamic is mirrored in the two characters the women play, whereby Katherine is often “directed” and guided by her friend, but ultimately plays a huge part in what transpires. I see full potential in this tuaakana dynamic and believe that it offers new knowledge in regards to arts practice and education.
What I also find important to mention is the power of autobiographical research in the making of performance work. In Mary’s case this approach has validated her experiential knowledge around pain, therein giving her permission to heal and grow. Through a re-tracing of her personal histories and memories, Mary has gained clarity around who she is both as an artist and as a young woman, assisting her in her own identity formation as she embarks on a career in the arts.
In my own work I am always looking to consider the theatre space as a site where moments of ritual can take place, where true change can occur, and works like this remind me that it is possible. In my reflection on experiencing She I realise that the show has remained present in me for a week at both an intellectual and cellular level. Performance practices of this nature go beyond just the creation of an artefact, they also activate. I did not walk away from She with an instant feeling of relief and empowerment - it instead sent me on a bumpy journey of true self-reflection. I have arrived somewhere though, some place new and strong, but just like Katherine I had to confront my own terror to get there.