Theatre review: Monument, Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre

Hats off to playwright Emily Sheehan: ‘Monument’ is first-class writing.

Playwright Emily Sheehan has written a clever and highly entertaining comedy about class, power, societal and intergenerational inequalities, women, women’s relationships, truth and lies – those we accept in ourselves and reject in others, and vice versa. This is all in a snappy 90-minute two-hander about a young female newly elected Prime Minister getting her hair and make-up done in a fancy hotel before her inauguration. Hats off to Sheehan – Monument is first-class writing.

This is Monument’s premiere season at Red Stitch in Melbourne, directed by Ella Caldwell and supported by Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre’s INK development program.   

That intimate relationship between those who beautify, and their subjects, is fascinating for many reasons – primarily as it provides a place where two very different people, separated by age, experience, class, wealth and power, can meet on relatively equal terms.

Edith Aldridge is the high-status character, from a dynastic political family – ‘like the Kennedys’. Her father, the sitting Australian Prime Minister, has died, and in a whirlwind series of events, including a prompt by-election followed by a lightning-quick campaign, she has found herself stepping into his shoes as the country’s youngest female PM. In a series of unfortunate events, her full team of people – executive assistant, personal assistant, chief of staff, campaign manager (and husband) – have been stranded in Melbourne, and so she finds herself getting ready for her inauguration speech with a hair and make-up artist her team have found at short notice: Rosie, a 22-year-old David Jones make-up counter employee whom she’s never met.

Sarah Sutherland as Edith exudes through every pore of her being the this-is-my-place assuredness of one born knowing they were made for bigger things; just as Julia Hanna as Rosie, in her no-nonsense chatty Gen Z way, is confident in her abilities to make someone look so fierce, they’ll slay the hell out of their day – to paraphrase her character.

But Rosie is also stuck in a debt cycle, her penchant for retail therapy supported by an increasingly ominous stack of deferred payment plans. Whatever dreams she may have of ever owning non-Monopoly board located property ‘when all the Boomers have already grabbed them all’ are futile.

Rosie is also all that stands between Edith and her public debut as the new PM on the world stage, which could either be a roaring success or fall in a heap. And Rosie’s magic power, like that of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, is knowing how to make an impression. Yes, it’s hair, yes, it’s make-up, but for Rosie, it’s also about what you’re representing, what you’re showing the public. It’s very hard, she tells Edith, to make someone up so it looks like they’ve made no effort at all. But that, she says, is what people want to see: something real, authentic, vulnerable.

A rack of expensive clothes in pink dust bags hang in the floor-to-ceiling-pink-fabric-draped hotel room: all selected by one of Edith’s “team” to convey a particular message, to appeal to a particular constituent, to signify reliability, strength, power. Edith’s “team” also helped answer the ‘what’s in my handbag’ question posed by a popular women’s mag that Rosie flips through while she’s waiting for Edith to return to the make-up chair. ‘What is in your handbag though?’ Rosie asks her, aghast that Edith wouldn’t actually tell the truth about what is in her handbag for the article.

‘I’m messy,’ Edith tells Rosie. To Edith, the careful creation of an image, that her team or the polls tell her is something the public wants, must be upheld. The “truth” about who she is or what’s in her handbag isn’t relevant, because she as herself (at least in her view) isn’t likeable.

But, as the play unfolds, it becomes clear that while Rosie urges Edith to show some of her vulnerabilities and just be herself, there are some lies that are still more acceptable than the truth.

Read: Theatre review: Prophet, Theatre Works

Monument is a multilayered play that provides a heap of juicy themes to chew on. With witty writing and perfectly pitched characters supported by a strong visual design aesthetic and two extraordinary performances by Sutherland and Hanna, there’s also an enormous amount of craft on display.   

One question artfully posited by Monument is: when image is everything, who really holds the power – the artist or her subject?

Writer: Emily Sheehan
Director: Ella Caldwell
Set and Costume Design: Sophie Woodward
Lighting Design: Amelia Lever-Davidson
Sound Design & Composition: Danni Esposito
Assistant Director: Ibrahim Halaçoglu
Makeup Advisor: Harriet O’Donnell
Stage Manager: Rain Iyahen
Assistant Stage Manager: Eliza Stone
Design Intern: Filipe Filihia
Cast: Julia Hanna, Sarah Sutherland

Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, St Kilda East
Until Sunday 3 September 2023

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen