The Female of the Species feels like a strange beast. Writer, Joanna Murray-Smith set out to write a serious piece of biting feminist commentary but somewhere along the way this transmogrified into a modern farce. The result is a how that at times encourages debate on some important topics while also poking light-hearted fun at other significant things. Confused? Well, there are some good ideas here but occasionally these get swept away in some eccentric moments.
The initial inspiration for the play was from a real-life event. In 2000, esteemed thinker and feminist provocateur, Germaine Greer was held hostage in her home. Her unwanted intruder was a deranged student. The obsessed stalker was ultimately charged. Greer has attacked this play even though at the time she hadn’t actually seen or read it.
Murray-Smith has created a character called Margot Mason in Greer’s image. The show’s star is an aging feminist author who is grappling with a severe case of writer’s block. Margaret Olive gives a great performance and stars as the sharp-tongued raconteur. The author was supposed to be working away in her sublimely-decorated home. Its authentic, lived-in feel is a testament to Jess Davies who is both the set designer and the play’s director.
Mason’s intruder is Molly Rivers (Lib Campbell) who uses Sailor Moon as her source of fashion inspiration. Rivers is a troubled young woman with a gun. Over the course of the play is rather muddled and incoherent at times. She is mad and wants revenge because she was abandoned as a baby and her mother was a devotees of Mason’s. Rivers was also rather enraptured by Mason’s work until she realised that Mason had revised her position on a number of important topics. This change of opinion is a major source of conflict and discussion throughout the play. Zoë Crawford plays Tess Thornton, Mason’s long-suffering daughter. She is a completely fictional character because Greer has no children. Thornton is also the mother of three small children and a rather harried woman. Crawford did an excellent job of capturing this woman’s flightiness to a tee.
This is despite the fact that it’s hard to imagine a woman being so forgetful with her three young kids. The male roles in this play seem rather stereotypical and thin in terms of characterisation. In fact, if there was a male version of the Bechdel test one suspects that this wouldn’t actually pass muster. Jock Lehman plays Thornton’s dim-witted yet sensitive-new-age husband who proudly assures us he works in hedge funds. Taufeeq Ahmed Sheikh meanwhile, plays a chauvinistic taxi driver who really comes out of left-field towards the end. And John Grinston plays Theo, Mason’s calm and supportive publisher in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it cameo.
The pacing in this piece is quite fast. Its 90-minute runtime means there is not much fat left on the bones of the script. But that’s not to say that the writing is perfect. In fact, there are plenty of plot contrivances and the proceedings tend to get sillier as things progress. Sheikh’s performance was a little over-the-top at times but this could also have been due to what the source material called for.
The Female of the Species had lots of entertaining moments but you also got the sense that this good play has a great one dying to get out. Mason’s character is used as a representative of feminist ideals that have since progressed. You also get the sense that she is being used as a scapegoat for different things. There’s also some sweeping arguments and generalisations when the truth is far more complex than that. This play can be a tad one-sided at times but at its best this is a rather quirky and madcap look at some of the powerful ideology behind one feminist’s mystique.
Reviewed By: Natalie Salvo