Thursday 13 February 2020

What Every Girl Should Know review

Four young girls living in a Catholic reformatory in 1914 experience an awakening when they come across Margaret Sanger’s Family Limitation, one of the first guides on birth control to be published in the United States. Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know has the girls questioning and challenging the faith and beliefs they’ve held as they start to explore their desires and fantasies from their new-found enlightenment that offers them power and liberation. 

The ensemble - Ravenna Bouckaert, Rachel Kamath, Vivian Nguyen and Shirong Wu – do a great job of bringing these girls to life and while they have distinct personalities, they don’t let them become stereotypes as they create a depth and authenticity to them. Nguyen is a highlight of the production, providing some comedic relief to the otherwise bleak (yet hopeful) narrative and she displays a carefully considered depiction of Lucy’s apprehension, fear and struggles.

Wu is also impressive as Anne, the hardest of the group with her bluntness and aggressive nature. Even though the rage inside her doesn’t overcome her, it is still presented as dangerous and bubbling. Bouckaert portrays the more aware yet innocent Joan with just the right level of attitude, a nice contrast to Kamath’s seemingly naive and romantic Theresa. 

The set and costumes by Eloise Kent heighten the circumstances our protagonists find themselves in. A large arched window looms over their single beds in Room 14 that have religious icons attached to them. Rachel Lee's lighting illuminates the bedroom in a manner that conveys time and mood but cleverly keeps the surrounding area in darkness, simultaneously showing that it is only here where they can be truly safe and how cut off from the real world they are. The space underneath the floor is stacked with books, signifying the knowledge these girls are being prevented from attaining. 

Unfortunately, Cathy Hunt's direction and Jess Keefe's sound design are not as well integrated with the set and lighting. Given the small performing space, there isn’t much room for the actors to move around and in this aspect, Hunt succeeds in keeping them active and expressing themselves with how they interact with their environment. However, the scenes where the girls succumb to the delirium of the rapture lack the intensity that’s required. The movements are not bold or confident enough and the music doesn’t match or support the direction. The reality of the world on stage becomes questionable once characters begin to enter and exit the bedroom through doors that shouldn't exist. 

What Every Girl Should Know was published one hundred years after Family Limitation and is named after Sanger’s book of the same name that spoke to adolescent girls about topics of puberty, menstruation and pregnancy. This kind of information is far less dramatic or controversial these days, but Byrne’s play provides a sombre reminder of the struggle for women to own their bodies, know their bodies and use their bodies as they wish. In this regard, while this story take places in 1914, it could easily, frighteningly, be set in 2020. 

Venue: Brunswick Mechanic Institute, 270 Sydney Rd, Brunswick
Season: Until 16 February | 7:30pm, Sat 3pm, Sun 2pm
Tickets: $25 ($5 from every ticket will be donated to CFA and Wildlife Victoria.)
Brunswick Mechanic Institute 

Image Credit: Craig Fuller

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