This review will discuss issues relating to family violence.
The ancient Greek story of Medea, made famous by Euripides’ 431BCE play, looms large in our culture. The clearly not exhaustive Wikipedia page for ‘cultural depictions of Medea’ is long and spans literature, music, theatre, cinema, television and video games. We’re clearly fascinated (or is it horrified?) by the idea of a woman killing her children.
In this country, while rarer than the shocking statistics pertaining to family violence (one woman a week is killed here by her former or current male partner), incidences of familicide or family-annihilation do happen – and they leave their scar on our society.
And the truth is, familicide is a form of gendered violence: it is the man/husband/father who is almost exclusively the instigator. Dennis Kelly’s one-woman play Girls & Boys (performed by the wonderful Nikki Shiels in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2022 production) explores this heavy material, focusing the narrative on a woman dealing with the repercussions of her husband killing their two children after she leaves him. And research tells us it is often a break-up or a threat of losing access to children that can be a catalyst for familicide, the twisted idea of: ‘if I can’t have them, no one can’.
It’s tough subject matter, but in Just a Boy, Standing in Front of a Girl by writer Jane Miller and director Beng Oh, we see a sympathetic interpretation of Medea, explored through an energetic, heightened and comical (almost to the point of melodrama) love story of compromise, between a reluctant, promising young woman and a mediocre man.
Through scenes influenced by the larger than life acting of soap opera and 50s US television advertising, we witness our protagonist’s societal conditioning as a teenager, as she is encouraged by a teacher to ‘find a man’ and ‘shape him’ for fear of ending up alone and withering. Her rich parents cut her off after she chooses to stick by this bloke, an aspiring magician and musician (he’s good at neither vocation). She’s smart and supports him to climb to ever greater professional success. Along the way, she has to off a few people – but we’re with her. Her victims are sexual predators and a bunch of toxic bros, and surely they deserve it. Surely?
But it’s the murdering of her own kids that is really hard to swallow – and Just a Boy, Standing in Front of a Girl does the best possible job of explaining the inexplicable. It’s a deeply uncomfortable space to sit in where we contemplate and really feel for someone who has done something so mind-bogglingly and undeniably – at least as far as most of us would agree – ‘evil’.
It’s not an excuse for her behaviour, but this production has done something remarkable: through deft subterfuge with the tools of humour, satire and a brilliant ensemble cast, we are led to a moment where we are forced to look at the Medea figure (never named in the program or the play) as she tells her story, gently, with the shining love of mother writ across her face to a clearly horrified investigative cop.
When this reviewer attended it felt as if every one of us in the room was holding our breath. Because we did feel for her, as we were horrified by her. This woman, who has lost everything.
The direction is assured, the strong choices (in terms of performance style and design) paying off. The set is simple and effective – a catwalk stage and traverse stage seating – so as the audience we become stand-ins for the Greek chorus. In this role the audience alternately laughs and lets out shocked gasps at the outrageous, misogynistic declarations of the characters, seemingly emblematic of the patriarchal society the Medea character (and all women) have had to endure throughout the recorded history of Western civilisation.
The writing is direct, contemporary and fresh, although perhaps the structure of the play could be tightened slightly. There are a few individual scenes later in the play when cameo characters (some neighbours, an influencer) weigh in on their interpretation of the two tragic figures. This doesn’t add a lot to the story, but does serve to delay the inevitable denouement. Similarly, the explanation the Medea figure gives for her actions to her former husband, as the coda of the play, is unnecessary. We’ve seen and felt what led her to this moment; we don’t need her to tell us why.
This interpretation of Medea is ripe for our times: where our understanding of the damage patriarchy wreaks on the lives of both men and women is being explored and talked about. Where our understanding of the prevalence of family violence, and the real harrowing stories of familicide in our country loom large in the media and our collective consciousness. But when it’s a woman – and we start to think about the context of her situation, what she has given up, what she has lost – this is the messy, awful, heartbreaking and fascinating stuff that theatre is made for.
Just a Boy, Standing in Front of a Girl is very thought-provoking theatre and you will be dwelling on it long after the curtain falls.
Just a Boy, Standing in Front of a Girl
Writer: Jane Miller
Director: Beng Oh
Set and Costume Designer: Emily Collett
Lighting Designer: John Collopy
Sound Designer: Ben Keene
Stage Manager: Teri Steer
Cast: Hudson Emery, Sophie Lampel, Annie Lumsden, Glenn van Oosterom and Gabriel Partington
Just a Boy, Standing in Front of a Girl will be performed until 9 July 2023.