The Theatrical Journalist

Improv, Comedy, Women, Melbourne and everything in between.

Howard Barker & “She Sees The Argument But”

It’s my final term at VCA, where I have been studying part-time (Monday and Wednesday nights since January). The final product of this course is to perform a play on the last day, with a guest director. My class has been so fortunate as we are currently being directed by the brilliant Hallie Shellam, and we’re working with Howard Barker’s set of playlets, The Possibilities.

I have never felt so privileged to be working with such an incredible script, and to be cast as one of the most interesting roles I’ve ever played.

I have been cast as the Official in Barker’s playlet She Sees The Argument But. Before we were cast, we read through The Possibilities twice, and both times I was asked to read in this particular playlet. Each time, I felt honoured and privileged. Something about this playlet in particular really spoke to me.

But what was it?

In She Sees The Argument But, a woman walks into a police office and stands before a female Official.
Here’s an except from the opening dialogue:

 OFFICIAL:

We are so glad you could come.

WOMAN: It was –

OFFICIAL: So glad.
(pause)
I can see your ankle.
(pause)
Do you realise that?
(pause)
You do realise, of course.
(pause)
And your eyes are outlined in –

WOMAN: Mascara.

OFFICIAL: Mascara, yes.
(pause)
Very glad you came because we want to understand and I think you do, too.
Terribly want to understand! You see, all this is, we believe, a positive encouragement to criminality.
Speak if you want to.
(pause)
We feel you aid the social enemy. You put yourself at risk, but also, others. The ankle is – your ankle in particular is – immensely stimulating, as I think you know.

The playlet speaks to me because it explores the perpetual societal argument “If a woman dresses like a slut, she’s asking for it”, ie. the premise of the Slut Walk, Reclaim the Night protest and any female rape/murder case. It also concerns the idea of women hating women – which is presented through my character the Official – as she chastises the Woman for showing her ankle. The only difference between this playlet and contemporary society is ‘the flashing of the ankle’, which has now shifted to “the flashing of the cleavage” or “the flashing of the legs”.

During production development, I came across Clementine Ford’s article “Your vagina is not a car”. The article discusses the idea that, yes, women are sexually attractive, and they do have vaginas, but that doesn’t mean men can just take what is not rightfully theirs without consent. I 100% agree with Ford’s argument, and it signifcantly helped me understand the deeper complexities of this playlet.
What I love about the Official, is that she represents the negative argument of Ford’s article and I get to perform it (with spite, of course!).

 OFFICIAL:
The world goes on, crises occur, we struggle towards the perfection of democracy, and you, a married woman, dangles her ankle on the bus.

WOMAN: Yes.

OFFICIAL:
YOU DESERVE EVERY UNWELCOME ATTENTION THAT YOU GET.
And I must say, were some monster brought before me on a charge of violation I should say half-guilty, only half!

 This excerpt shows the Official letting her true colours shine through. The Official tells the Woman that she deserves all the assault she gets, and that if she (the Official) had to convict her (the Woman)’s attacker, the Official would almost agree with him and see his point of view – that the Woman was rightfully his to take because she was promiscuously showing her ankle.

Ford writes:
“The idea that we could possibly allow any victim of assault, sexual or otherwise, to think that they had somehow asked for it is so anathema to the idea of human decency that it beggars belief. Nobody asks to be raped,”

Ford also raises the argument:
“Presenting vaginas as disembodied possessions just waiting to be stolen isn’t just inaccurate (and searingly offensive – how many people who cursed Peter Slipper for comparing vaginas to mussels have invoked the old car key argument?) it also completely denies the reality of assault by shifting it into some kind of arbitrary narrative of property theft,”

This particular idea is interconnected with She Sees The Argument But:

       OFFICIAL:
Your ankle is simply an exposed and consequently, somewhat absurd, piece of human flesh.
Does he show you his? He also has an ankle.

So far, I’m only 2 weeks into rehearsals of this playlet. I’m sure that I’ll look back on this post in another 4 weeks, and realise that I was barely skimming the surface of Barker’s central concerns and explorations.
Nevertheless, I identify with this particular playlet because it transcends the historical context of which it is set and directly relates to me, a young female in society, who often catches the late train home after acting class and walks home in the dark.
After the death and media coverage of Jill Meagher‘s horrifying ordeal (may she rest in peace), this playlet spoke to me, as if Barker was asking me to look deeper into the societal questions raised in both Jill Meagher’s demise, the purpose of the ‘Slut Walk’ and the media’s representation of women.

Most importantly, Barker’s exploration throughout She Sees The Argument But made me question myself and how I think of other women, how I pre-judge them, how I make negative assumptions based on the way they are dressed and how they present themselves.

It was a wake up call, and a much-needed reassessment.
It’s hard to shake certain patriarchal pre-judgements when they are drilled into your brain from such a young age.

Thank you, Howard Barker, for making me look a little deeper, and ask a few more questions.

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