A group of women perform a perfected dance routine, smiles bright, movements synchronised, as three men with clipboards watch on, judging.
This is the opening scene of Let Men Tremble. As the audience take their seats at Theatre Works, a series of movements is expertly executed to Florence and the Machine’s ‘Big God’. It is an impressive beginning, one that immediately lays out the structures that Let Men Tremble will seek to break, and demonstrates the sheer physical power of the women on stage.
Structurally, Let Men Tremble has a great deal in common with the Danger Ensemble’s most famous work, The Hamlet Apocalypse. It too is built around an existing play, and showcases the actors pushing hard against the boundaries of that theatrical world and the world it seeks to represent and uphold outside the theatre. Instead of Hamlet, Let Men Tremble uses Nathaniel Hawthorn’s novel the Scarlet Letter. There’s a lot less human truth to honour in the Scarlet Letter, however, and Let Men Tremble makes quick, messy work of the American colonial story.
The lighting in this production is superb. Ben Hughes’ use of darkness and neon creates a fearful space, pulsating with anger. The smoke creates a ceiling against the light, delineating the upstairs/downstairs spaces from one another, making what is actually a very large room feel crowded and stifled. The costuming choices support the shifting tones and power grabs, and the crown (seen in the promo photo above) is an excellent piece that invokes the divine and the violent simultaneously.
The play itself is loud, unrepentant and altogether blunt. Performed by Chris Beckey, Jane Cameron, Danny Carroll, Caroline Dunphy, Eidann Glover, Nicole Harvey, Alexandra Hines, Shamita Siva, Leo Thompson and Louise Woodward, Let Men Tremble feels monologic; there are almost no scenes in which the performers or their characters talk to each other. Instead, the audience is given moments from each actor. Shamita Siva is barely given a moment to show sadness, let alone anger. It’s a delivery mode that carries a lot of risk of emptiness, presentation instead of representation. To use a very tired narrative complaint, there’s a lot of telling and not much showing going on here, though the performers do their best to imbue their statements with feeling. There isn’t even any character growth, just reveals and breakdowns – masks fall away and claims are staked. Many of these reveals in fact gesture towards known stories and known wrongs – a working mother, pushing back against the sexism of theatre and family both, does so in trite sentences that don’t convey a sense of personal story, but rather a common experience.
There are moments that do get the space and time to hurl their full weigh at the audience and let us sit with it. Eidann Glover carries the full emotion of her monologues, each twinge of guilt, each fist clench and moment of self-hatred-turned-acceptance is relatable and beautifully performed. It feels raw. Likewise, Danny Carroll’s locker room breakdown is excellent, a short-circuit spoken word trip that rapidly lays out the connections between the innocuous and the brutal. It is also heartening to see Chris Beckey continuing to be themselves onstage, and their early rejection of oppressive roles brings a spark of fierce joy that the show does not truly let blossom until far too close to the end.
To slip for a bit from regular factors a critic should consider to how my personal experience influenced me as an audience member: there were several choices in this production I just did not fully understand or relate to, as a young, queer Australian woman, with the privilege of being white and raised non-religiously. These are threshold questions: why adapt the Scarlet Letter? What does an 1850s American novel have to say about Australia in the 2010s? Let Men Tremble leans heavily on the Church, and the influence of God(s), but how large a figure does it really loom for the women on stage? It’s hard to tell from the way each story is sliced into a moment, rather than a character or a story. Was there no Australian equivalent you could have used instead? Picnic at Hanging Rock maybe? Does our Pentecostal PM really care if we denounce a Catholic God we weren’t even raised under? We have our own colonialism and sexism to contend with and make reparations for, do we really need to import America’s? Also, if you are going to turn to America for inspiration, did the production team consider not just the symbolic, but also inter-textual implications of women in red (looking squarely at the Handmaid’s Tale here)?
There should also be a warning provided for anyone who is related to or friends with any recently deceased victim of violence against women. The moment their names are invoked is powerful, but is also overwhelming. These emotions are far larger than anything the show is really capable of handling responsibly. My guest and I were left to deal with a heavy bucket of anger and grief that did not dissipate or turn joyous or righteous in the final ten minutes of the show. Instead we clung to each other as the house lights came on and a female empowerment bop sound-tracked our tear-stained exit. Unfortunately, we know how to provide our own after care by now.
This is a production about rebellion, about staking space for women’s stories. But the only women’s story presented here is the rebellion itself. We don’t get to see the other stories, the ones gestured to in monologue, the ones that have driven us to this fight in the first place, or the ones that come after.
Let Men Tremble is on at Theatre Works until 25 August 2019. Tickets are available from the Theatre Works website or at the box office.