After attending Alana Valentine’s Ladies Day on Friday night I was instantly struck by the enormity of what I had just witnessed. And so I write this not as a review – I am not a reviewer – but as a writer. Also while the production is presented by an extremely talented director and cast, it is the writing I am driven to comment upon.
Rushing to catch this production on its opening night at Griffin I was relatively unprepared for what was to come. Yes, I was subconsciously aware the play was about men in drag glamming up for a race day in Broome and so I expected some humour and, familiar with Valentine’s work, I also expected some characters who were based on real people. What I did not expect was the ambition of Valentine’s vision.
There was indeed humour – sharp and clever, fast and brutal in the way that only Valentine can do. Yet the play also brimmed with humanity, compassion, uncompromising characters and a rigorous examination of the process of playwriting. In Valentine’s play the bare bones of writing are laid out, exposed: the desire to make sense of the world, the need to make good out of horror and lastly, on this occasion, exposed in its ultimate loyalty to character through everything.
This critical self-examination appears just when you think you have the play all figured out, at the most unexpected moment, in the most unexpected form – and you are lead there by the most capable of playwright hands.
Writers are constantly asked, ‘Which character is you?’ Or told ‘I could tell that was based on you?’ Or ‘I could see who that was about!’ It is confounding because all characters have been filtered through one’s own self and as such all of them have some of the writer in them. Yet they also have a life of their own. And what is me and what is not me becomes something ‘other,’ becomes someone who lives outside of the life of the writer. Some characters are based on living people, and with these there is so much to consider when placing them in a theatrical work. They live on stage but not as themselves, instead they are handled by the writer to attend to the themes and story placed at the centre. They are often shaped in order to increase the dramatic action of the play, to allow for a climax and an emotional catharsis for audience members.
What then does a writer do when the character is clear that they do not want to fit into your agenda? I say ‘character’ rather than the ‘person’ because its even harder when it is the character, harder for the writer to ignore that character’s obvious needs – although many writers do so at their own peril.
By inserting a character based on herself in this play, Valentine has taken ‘meta’ to a uniquely interesting place – she has commented on being a writer, while being a writer, and questioned what is character, what is real and what is story in a way that is confronting, brave and ultimately process changing for writers and those who love writing. This is not a writer in a story in the usual ‘let’s do something different.’ This writer is in this story because the story is about why we write, what characters want and how we put together story to change the world. There is purpose behind this decision. And bravery. A hell of a lot of bravery.
Ladies Day is one of the most intelligent pieces I have ever seen on stage. It makes you laugh, look away in horror or despair at unflinching violence, then has you laughing again in the next unexpected moment.
Alana Valentine is a writer at the peak of her career, offering a crafted play that will live on well beyond this fabulous production at Griffin. Ladies Day is a play we will be talking about for years to come, because it uses theatre to really interrogate what writing is, what humanity is, what compassion is and it does so in the hands of a writer who can offer the cleverest of wit with a full helping of authentic politics, humanity and the capacity to completely surprise you just when you think you have it all figured out.
Bravo Griffin. This is not a writerly theatre, but a writers’ theatre in action.
As an artist I strongly urge anyone who has ever made art, struggled with life and wanted authentic work that is clever without the accompanying vanity to rush to see this work while it is in its fabulous premier season.
Suzie Miller, Playwright