Lysa and the Freeborn Dames, playing at La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre, encapsulates the ‘Play for Today’, a phrase used in 1970s Britain for made-for-television movies.
It’s appropriate that the production channels this oxymoron of the current and the historic. Lysa tells a story of age-old themes with contemporary immediacy, honouring the struggle of women both past and oh-so-present.
Straddling and confronting cognitive dissonance, the play acknowledges that multiple truths are simultaneously possible across generational and geographical life experiences. Yet it’s rooted in Lysistrata, an Ancient Greek text, literally conjoining and unifying the eternal challenges faced by all women. Multiple yet singular truths indeed.
Opening on the evening of the War Weekender, an annual football event in a regional Australian every-town, self-proclaimed angry feminist Lysa has returned from university determined to confront her hometown’s treatment of women.
Recruiting childhood friends Myra, Esme and ex-lover Peta (or attempting to, alongside reluctant accomplice Ken the Cop), she locks the football team’s aggressively masculine star player (and Peta’s current boyfriend) Grant in a bomb shelter. Lysa plans to derail the game unless her demands for better street lighting and local female representation are met.
But as the evening escalates, her bold, dogmatic actions incur unforeseen hostility from her friends and the town – all overseen by a benevolent Greek Chorus of 3 Australian women wise rather than hardened by tough experience.
Without spoiling the ending, Lysa’s final poignant scenes appropriately offer no answers to the many contemporary problems it explores, other than recognising the willingness to fight gender inequality as worthy even when the methods are misguided or not understood and accepted. The value in different women’s experiences is celebrated, and the incremental changes possible by them championed.
Lysa and the Freeborn Dames, then, tackles provocative, timely/timeless themes through real-world experience. The sparse set of a footy-club bar (complete with gaudy carpet) and flagpole (hijacked by Lysa’s Pussy Power flag) reflects the play’s tone of the instantly recognisable ‘type’, invoking rather than presenting simple, iconic, Australian tradition come to life.
Similarly, in another example of multiple truth(s), the characters themselves are archetypes yet identifiably real at the same time, mirroring the polarisation of contemporary political dichotomies.
A vibrant young cast helms the piece strongly, embodying the nuances, values, complexities, and vocal stresses of rural Australia, although Tania Vukicevic as titular Lysa took a nervous 15 minutes to warm into the role before confidently finding her stride.
With limited professional experience, Tatum Mottin, Samantha Lush, Clementine Anderson and Morgan Francis as Esme, Myra, Peta and Ken finely balance stock characters with relatable realism and individuality. Hugh Parker finds a gruff honesty in Lysa’s repressed ‘good bloke’ father, and Jackson Bannister is both terrifying and vulnerable as country jock Grant.
Indeed, in a fantastical but moving monologue sequence, Grant confesses himself a ‘shit bloke’, knowing that he’s afraid of his emotions but with no outlet for them. Patriarchy and toxic masculinity hurt individual men alongside women, but even understanding this, Lysa naively expects he’ll ‘confess’ himself as innately ‘part of the problem’ – which only angers him further.
This energetic realism is balanced by the mature Greek Chorus of Freeborn Dames, existing both as characters within the narrative world and beyond it. Indigenous Australian Roxanne McDonald, Asian-Australian Hsiao-Ling Tang and European-Australian Barb Lowing combine as a formidable triumvirate of female voices far less tokenistic than it sounds.
Their benevolent care for Lysa supports her arc, but they double as local townspeople throughout, contrasting her idealism with reality. As individual women, each tells a personal story that reminds us to honour the women who’ve come before. Their stories as lovers and wives, as mothers and matriarchs and of thankless service because “that’s just the way it is” were so moving that I was humbled and grateful for all the women in my own life who’ve gone before. Who are today’s angry youth to scoff at the tireless efforts of women who had limited choices – if any?
Nonetheless, there were a few too many laughs at the expense of regional Australian perspectives for my taste, with Esme in particular often the butt of ‘simple country girl’ jokes (“What are you fighting?” “The PETRIMONY!”).
But although it surprised me that the guffawing opening night audience didn’t recognise themselves as complicit in Lysa’s dismissive and condescending attitude (and Esme does receive a powerful eleventh-hour narrative redemption) Lysa herself wasn’t spared comedic value either. Her buzzword jargon of ‘privilege’, ‘toxic masculinity’, and ‘oppression’ were so alien to her peers (even as they experienced the impact of all 3) that the joke is smartly thrown back on more educated youth.
The world-view of the righteously angry young self-identifying feminist isn’t merely disagreed with by many women, it isn’t even recognised by them. Lysa’s brand of gender equality is justified and necessary, but it’s also alienating and dismissive.
The play thoughtfully handles a multiplicity of contemporary engagements with and perceptions of feminism – at one point, Lysa even posits “How can you be so second-wave?” Her denigration of the battles fought by women before her is indicative of her lack of understanding of the women around her; the very people she believes she supports and represents.
She rejects Ken’s allyship as a man and as a police officer, demanding he demonstrate it. He counters that he cares and understands; that his sister volunteers at the local women’s shelter, too busy with her own support of vulnerable women to stage protests.
Lysa is caught in a net of contradiction and hypocrisy – she rejects a town meeting (knowing that results require action, not talking), yet she sincerely claims she intends only ‘respectful conversation’. Her provocative actions suggest anything but, and while the play avoids didacticism, it encourages that in the fight for equality, we ‘call in’ others rather than ‘calling them out’.
The complex misunderstandings and miscommunication of people with diverse life experiences (especially women) are deftly handled, but the play doesn’t overtly criticise Lysa either; the genuine injustices and discrimination she faces enflames and legitimises her actions.
Lysa and the Freeborn Dames is a Play for Today because it embraces the possibility of an ever-progressive future while encouraging respect for the women of the past and even the present. It recognises the justified anger of a generation but acknowledges that anger may be blinkered, inflexible and misunderstood even as it’s naively well-intended.
It’s a thoughtful, powerful, honest production, and playwright Claire Christian has crafted the single best piece of original Australian writing I’ve ever seen on stage. Playing for a shamefully short season, catch it while you can.
Lysa and the Freeborn Dames, presented by La Boite and QUT Creative Industries, is playing at the Roundhouse Theatre until August 11. For tickets, visit the website.