Experimental theatre is an unpredictable beast. It can leave audiences wondering if they really understood it, or if they perhaps laughed in the wrong places. With some productions, the question lurks around the edges: is the emperor wearing any clothes?
New York’s Wooster Group has been making experimental theatre since the mid-1970s, with director Elizabeth LeCompte recognised as a master of the form. In The Town Hall Affair, showing now at Sydney festival, the company returns to that era to recreate and reimagine the infamous Town Hall debate, billed as “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation”, moderated (controversially) by novelist Norman Mailer and featuring feminist Germaine Greer (played here by Maura Tierney), writer and lesbian activist Jill Johnston (Kate Valk), eminent literary critic Diana Trilling (played by a male actor, Greg Mehrten) and the National Organisation for Women’s Jacqueline Ceballos.
The panel was a hot mess. In a staged intervention, Johnston was mobbed by women from the audience who made out with her and with each other. At another point, Mailer offered to take his penis out and put it on the desk. Greer argued against the myth of male genius, Trilling defended the female vaginal orgasm, Johnston contended that all women were lesbians and Ceballos – who seems, by comparison, to have been the most practical of the bunch – argued for equal pay.
The night was captured by filmmakers Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker in a grainy but compelling documentary, Town Bloody Hall, released in 1979. In Wooster Group’s treatment of the event, scenes from the documentary play on a screen behind the actors.
One of the aims of the play, according to LeCompte, is to give more of a voice to Johnston, whose talk was cut off on the night by Mailer, who was keeping strict time on all speakers. Johnson described the event as “a disaster for women” because it occurred at all, yet she also called it the social event of the season.
It is her voice – breathy, discursive, and slightly off-centre, which Valk channels with ease – that gives this stage recreation of the night a whiff of strangeness and mania. And Valk’s performance – part Phoebe from Friends, part Girls Gone Wild – is magnificent.
There’s a lot of double vision and double effect in the play, in which fragmentation and distortion play a central role. There are two Mailers on stage (played by Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd), and a Mailer on the large screen behind the actors. Then, on a smaller screen to the side of the stage, another Mailer. On the larger screen is the Town Hall debate from 1971; on the smaller screen are scenes from Maidstone, a 1970 independent film written, produced, directed by and starring Mailer (one audience member was overheard saying after a Sydney show, “Maidstone is kind of like that dreadful Louis CK movie he did just before the allegations, the one that was never released”). Mailer calls the women “lady writers” and worries about a leftwing totalitarian state of affairs. He may as well have said, “It’s political correctness gone mad.”
You can’t help but feel that Mailer, here, is like a hydra. He can’t be contained – cut off one head and another grows back. This could be a comment on the patriarchy – the way that men have the pack behind them. But the doubling also occurs with three of the women on the panel. Actors playing Greer, Trilling and Johnson sometimes speak in synchronicity with their counterparts on the screen – word for word, intonation for intonation. This is a play all about voices – and Tierney, Mehrten and Valk are word perfect.
This dense play, running just over an hour, is full of fury and ideas about sex and power that are still being fought over today. But rather than think about it too much, it’s best to let the piece wash over you. Many of the strongest effects in the play are visual and auditory – and taking it in can feel at times like a lucid dream. But among the doubling up – and between the two screens – there is some great chunks of polemic and truth telling. Tiernay as Greer says at one point to Trilling: “One of the characteristics of oppressed people is that they always fight among themselves.” That is still true today.
The Town Hall Affair is avant-garde – mind-bending at times – but by the end it’s clear that the emperor is definitely wearing clothes. The same clothes, in fact, that he wore in the 1970s.