Theatre review: Not All Dictators, La Mama

A raucous production with an ambitious political message that doesn’t quite hit the mark.

On the night marking one year since Russia invaded Ukraine, Not All Dictators shone a light on what life has been like for Ukrainian women over this time. The play, by Tiffany Barton, Kate Smurthwaite and Natali Blok (who is Ukrainian), also looked to make political statements on multiple issues and simultaneously present an imagined future where the power of witches leads to the end of the war. There was a lot going on… 

The result was less a story or satire and more a presentation of processing trauma and dispossession through playwriting. Barton, Smurthwaite and Blok tried to cover a lot of dense topics, but the message of the work was lost among it all. The only thing that was clear was that this geopolitical event has caused grief and rage. The chopping and changing between ideas, story arcs and themes saw Not all Dictators struggle to find its rhythm and the pacing lagged, particularly in moments that should have been intimate and emotionally charged.

Performers Pru Daniel, Victoria Haslam and Melina Wylie worked tirelessly against this with electrifying commitment and intriguing characteristics. It’s fun and fresh to see women given space to be absolutely crass, filthy and violently angry. The cast took to this interpretation of witchiness wonderfully, the energy of the production at its highest when the three toiled around their cauldron. This was particularly so for Wylie, the leader of the three sisters, who simmered with danger and power both physical and fantastical. 

Director Helen Doig brought together a strong creative team as well. The hair, makeup and wardrobe heightened the eeriness of the witches and aesthetically connected them as sisters. The stage design evoked both the witches’ forest and the horrors of war through bare, bloodied fabric that also enabled video to be projected for dramatic emphasis. The lighting was atmospheric and thoughtful in its variation. 

Read: Exhibition review: Yoshitomo Nara, Art Gallery of WA

All the elements were there, but in trying to dissect so many issues within a context that is currently unfurling, Not All Dictators ended up not saying much at all.

Not All Dictators by Tiffany Barton, Natali Blok, Kate Smurthwaite
La Mama, Melbourne
Director: Helen Doig

Multimedia: Porl Phillips
Lighting designer: Julian Adams
Music: Peaches, Death Pill, Pussy Riot and Shaun Roberts

Cast: Pru Daniel, Victoria Haslam, Melina Wylie

Not all Dictators was performed from 15-26 February 2023.

Jenna Schroder is an emerging arts critic, with a background in dance and voice, and an organiser at the Media, Entertainment, Arts Alliance. Outside of her union activism, Jenna can be found performing at The Improv Conspiracy, around the Melbourne comedy scene and producing independent work across multiple platforms. Twitter: @jennaschroder00