In a rare occurrence, the cast of The Curator’s Australian premiere production of The Revolutionists receives audience applause before any members have even spoken a word. It comes, appropriately, in recognition of the show’s bold beginning, which sees its four characters bursting down a fashion runway. While our eyes follow them, another appears in waiting.
It is there that we meet the story’s four fierce females. Three are real life figures: forgotten playwright and feminist advocate Olympe de Gouges (Lisa Hickey), idealistic assassin Charlotte Corday (Lauren Roche) and infamous embattled queen Marie Antoinette (Amanda McErlean). The fourth, a freedom fighter called Marianne Angelle (Asabi Goodman), is the creation of playwright Lauren Gunderson.
Milton’s Christ Church creates a unique intimacy, with the audience seated on either side of the stage. The visuals are stunning. Lush pins and red mix-patterned ruffled and frilled costumery conveys a clear sense of opulence befitting the play’s French Revolution setting. The costume designer and director is Michael Beh.
First produced in 2015, The Revolutionists is really a piece about a playwright (being Olympe de Gouges) writing a play. It starts with a visit from Olympe’s abolitionist friend Marianne, who wants Olympe to write pamphlets to assist in the fight against colonial oppression. As the pair discuss their revolutionary belief that a better world is possible in which women have agency over their own lives, they are joined by Charlotte. She is in search of a writer to help craft her final words for the scaffold, anticipated as part of her plan to murder the fundamentalist Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the Reign of Terror.
Sparks fly when Marie enters, leading to some bickering banter between the four. Though Act I is retrospectively a little too long compared to a taut Act II, there is a clear celebration of words, writing and the theatre, along with reminder of women’s importance in history. The script gifts us many quote-worthy catch phrases and meta-theatre mentions. That is especially true in Olympe’s rebuked determination to write a witty and wise satiric ‘voice of the revolution’ play. Humour is an important ingredient, especially in the first act and to a lesser extend thereafter, as the mood darkens.
Attention to detail adds to the dynamism of the experience. French revolutionary motifs, such as aristocratic wigs, are worn by the production’s tech crew and ushers. Framed posters with the women’s essential quotes line the walls and the pre-show soundtrack empowers. Within the production too, reappropriated modern songs give each woman a musical motif, most notably Marie’s “Feeling Good” reassurance and Charlotte’s “So What” declaration of rock star status.
The strong and empowering characters are all distinct. A talented cast readily moderate the show’s movements towards melodrama and farce. Hickey gives her all as the anchor, Olympe. McErlean brings compassion to Marie Antoinette, whose dialogue comes complete with its own stage directions. In contrast is Marianne’s anger, which Goodman delivers with passion. Roche, meanwhile, brings an intense youthful energy to Charlotte.
The story is drama filled and ultimately hopeful about the power of legacy. In The Curator’s highly-capable hands, The Revolutionists is a noteworthy work of humour and heart that begs the question why the satire is not being more widely staged. It’s passionate, powerful and political. Please see it.
The Revolutionists in showing at Christ Church, Milton, Brisbane until March 26th, 2021.
For more of Meredith Walker’s theatre reviews, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane.