Sam Brooks reviews If There’s No Dancing at the Revolution, I’m Not Coming and Power Ballad, two plays by rising star dramturgist Julia Croft on now at The Basement.
Winter brings us many things. It’s the weather for holding your hot water bottle tight, for drinking coffee for warmth as well as staying awake and for staying inside more. You know what’s inside? The theatre.
Julia Croft is one of Auckland theatre’s most exciting makers at the moment, and The Basement has brought her two gems back for two weeks. Her work is proudly feminist, obliterates any genre boundaries and disarmingly engaging to a wide range of audiences. I’d feel as comfortable sending a high school student along to one of her shows as I would sending someone with their PhD in gender studies.
The first show, directed by Virginia Frankovich (who also directed Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again for Silo this year) is If There’s No Dancing at the Revolution, I’m Not Coming. It’s a deconstruction of pop culture’s attitudes towards women that is as celebratory as it is chilling; it criticises these attitudes as much as it celebrates women for being able to survive them, and to find strength despite them.
It’s had seasons all around the world, and I caught this show the second time it came to Auckland (it’s returning for the third and final time now) in The Basement Studio and also at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where the show’s Summerhall venue gave it a haunting reverence. The go-to venue for experimental work in Edinburgh, Summerhall has another life as a medical school when it’s not in use as a festival venue. In this setting, Croft’s work became a metaphorical dissection of what it means to be a woman, and a woman living under the weight of today’s culture.
Power Ballad, directed by Nisha Madhan, is the dark, weird glorious b-side to If There’s No Dancing At The Revolution, I’m Not Coming. It’s the Boys for Pele to Little Earthquakes, the Chungking Express to Ashes of Time, or to be more literal, the E-MO-TION B-Sides to E-MO-TION.
Where If There’s No Dancing at the Revolution is about culture and its relationship to gender, Power Ballad is about language and how it relates to gender and the performance of gender, and how the language that has been instilled in us might actually be insufficient or ill-suited to express what we need to.
The great things about both these works, but especially about Power Ballad, is how they act as a conduit for the kinds of ideas that live in textbooks and lectures and makes them into something easily understood and relatable. It’s not particularly engaging to have someone explain why spoken and verbal language might be a construct of the patriarchy that values masculine expression (or repression) over any other kind of expression, but when you see Croft literally embody the difficulty of a woman trying to fit into masculine expression, see her writhing around trying to talk into a microphone, you get it. You understand it.
Both shows are full of these kinds of images, images that speak to your brain while they hit you in the gut. In Power Ballad, Croft draws less on pop culture and more on cultural expressions, sayings that we overhear in bars and at loathed family meetings like ‘It’s just a feeling’, and the show is stronger for it. Croft’s character, such as it is, is constantly searching for a way to express herself
Both shows rely on Croft’s strengths as a maker, and those of her collaborators, but also on Croft’s strengths as a performer. It’s a boring thing to fixate on, honestly, but with a performer who lacked Croft’s physical precision or her complete openness, these shows would become didactic. They would become about the message, not about the human by proxy the humans who routinely have to experience what Croft is going through onstage. Croft the maker doesn’t just serve as a conduit for her message, Croft the human being serves as a conduit for what her audience is feeling. It’s an important distinction, and one that lifts Croft’s work above other shows in these veins.
Even when it’s about the ideas, when If There’s Not Dancing is about women who have to live with what pop culture puts on them, when Power Ballad is on our current language’s insufficiencies, Croft makes them about the women who have to actually live through these concepts in their everyday lives.
These are works that are heavy with ideas, but they don’t sit heavy on the audience’s shoulders. Power Ballad in particular ends with an Annie Lennox-inspired moment that sums up the message on the show and includes the audience in it, and Croft’s joy seeing the audience find their own communal language is gorgeous, and vital. As much as these shows are about what is wrong with society, they’re also about the joy in surviving society, and surviving it together.
The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.