This review discusses issues of sexual violence.
The watershed cultural moment of #MeToo has sparked a new era of women’s truth-telling, the recognition that silence is a weapon of the status quo – and it’s through sharing stories of sexual violence that women can retake their power and make it harder for perpetrators of violence to hide.
Michaela Coel’s extraordinary 2021 Emmy Award-winning television series I May Destroy You and the Academy Award-winning (Best Original Screenplay) 2020 crime thriller Promising Young Woman both emerged from this zeitgeist. Interestingly, both stories involve the protagonist taking back power through an act of vengeance. In drama, if not always in life – vengeance satisfies us. A balance is righted.
US playwright and Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist Clare Barron’s 2023 play Shhhh – currently in its Australian premiere season – also deals with this theme, although (perhaps appropriately, given the title) it’s a much quieter story. A character’s trauma emerges through the story gradually, rather than being approached head-on. In fact – it was so quiet, I nearly missed it.
The tiny, converted shipping container theatre of Red Stitch is a good fit for such an intimate play. It’s a piece that revels in the uncomfortable spaces: what we desire, how we ask for it and what happens when our boundaries are disrespected.
Shhhh begins with a female ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) audio voice playing in blackness – whispery, slow, close-mic’d to the point of hearing the wet crackle of cheeks and lips against tongue as she speaks. The speaker lingers purposefully on each word, taps on a ceramic cup, the audience titters. For a scene without any visual accompaniment, it feels far too long – and not because it is uncomfortable, but because not much is happening.
The lights go up on a fluffy lolly-pink apartment – the floor is covered in pastel sorbet-hued shagpile carpet, a pile of pink clothes occupies one corner. A free-standing set wall at the back is covered with a venetian blind. Kyle (Peter Paltos) is seated, pants down, on a pastel, fur-covered toilet, recounting to his sometime-lover Shareen (Jessica Clarke) – offstage behind the blind – a visceral story about someone being cut nearly in half by a boat. It ends with him sticking his toe into her vagina, but the moment of sexual connection trails off half-heartedly.
We meet Shareen’s sister Sally (Witchy Witch in the program, performed by Caroline Lee), who has come for dinner. Sally smokes in the kitchen making coffee, while Shareen recounts the time Kyle told her she wasn’t ‘doing orgasms right’, and their sexual encounter ended with her pooing all over the bed.
If all this sounds shocking, it really doesn’t feel like it. Most of the scenes left me more confused than uncomfortable: there is a general lack of overall connection, half-finished stories and narrative trails that lead nowhere. As a whole, the show seems to be offering musings – and not necessarily connected musings – on the themes of desire, sex and consent.
One scene brings together two younger women, Francis (Hayley Edwards) and Sandra (Jess Lu), at a café. Listening in is Shareen, as she’s waiting at another table for Kyle. Sandra and Francis have a frank and intimate discussion about consent, and relay personal stories of sex with men, where each felt as if their boundaries were being disrespected. They feel violation and anger. It’s probably the most interesting scene in the whole play – although, again, it doesn’t really go anywhere. It is a one-off, and we don’t see either character again.
As for the undercurrent of sexual trauma running through Shhhh, I didn’t recognise this until much later – and even then, it isn’t dealt with directly. So I was left piecing the story together after the fact: an unexplained chronic illness that Shareen has, a strange chase scene, an almost surreal return to the ASMR reference from the beginning of the play as part of a peculiar sort of vengeance. As we don’t see Sally perform the ASMR at the beginning of the play, it also isn’t clear that hers is the disembodied voice, leaving the opening dangling uncomfortably – a disconnected fragment in a play of disconnected fragments.
Shhhh is saved somewhat by the excellent performances of all the actors and the fact that much of the writing is funny and well-observed – although potentially would work better as stand-alone pieces rather than as a connected play.
Some stand-out moments are when Sunanda Sachatrakul (as Preeya) and Caroline Lee (as Sally) meet for their very awkward first date, navigating an obvious attraction. Sachatrakul is a wonderful comic actor – the moments of realised horror at her continual awkward blunderings is a delight to watch. Hayley Edwards I saw previously in Lemon Tree on Dreg Street at Theatre Works – a knockout comic performance. And they shine here, albeit in a much smaller role – the scene requiring top comic chops and a visceral anger that can’t be made light of or undermined by the humour.
Both Clarke as the breathless and effervescent Shareen and Paltos as the wishy-washy Kyle play against each other well – although their scenes are some of the most going-nowhere of the play.
The central relationship of the two sisters: Sally and Shareen, was the most frustrating of all for me. Although their relationship is charged with obvious love and care, and the ritualised spell they share is a beautiful moment of connection with the symbolic resonance of female empowerment, there doesn’t feel as if there is enough fire in either of them, and the way in which Sally enacts her vengeance on behalf of her sister feels disconnected, phlegmatic and ultimately unsatisfying.
Having Sally onstage at the beginning of the play would have helped the story – as would having at least another reference to the ASMR world of performance that she works in – connecting the threads across what is a fairly important plot point.
While Shhhh deals with important themes and provides moments of greatness, as a whole, I wanted more drama, more fire – and a story that rang much louder.
Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre
Writer: Clare Barron
Director: Emma Valente
Set and Costume Design: Romanie Harper
Lighting Design: Giovanna Yate Gonzalez
Composition/Sound Design: Emma Valente
Production Dramaturg: Noemie Huttner-Koros
Stage Manager: Jemma Law
Assistant Stage Manager: Sophie O’Donovan
Cast: Jessica Clarke, Hayley Edwards, Caroline Lee, Jess Lu, Peter Paltos, Sunanda Sachatrakul
Shhhh will be performed until 16 July 2023.