02 July 2013

Review: Story of O

NEON Festival of Independent Theatre
Story of O
The Rabble
28 June 2013
The Lawler
to 7 July

Carousel ponies, huffy walk-outs and a personal trigger warning when you pick up your ticket: The Rabble have adapted the Story of O for the MTC's sensational Neon season.  It's confronting and confirming and I loved it so much that it hurt a bit to watch.

I love The Rabble's work with the kind of love that defies any attempt at a star rating. In preparation for their version of Story of O by Pauline Réage, I read the book; the reading was less painful than O's preparation at Roissy, but I didn't enjoy it and had no idea what to expect on the stage.

In 1954, Anne Declos was a successful 47-year-old journalist and novelist when she wrote this tale as a gift to her boss and male lover, who fancied the writing of the Marquis de Sade. Despite winning the prestigious French literary prize, Prix des Deux Magots, she didn't publicly reveal herself as the author until 40 years after it was published.

It's ostensibly about a young woman's complete submission to secure her lover. A submission that includes being unable to cross her legs, multiple penetration by anonymous men (without any hint of lube, condoms or a moment to catch a breath to scream a non-existent safe word), whipping, branding and her ultimate exposure (considered almost too shocking at the time) is the waxing off of her pubic hair. And that's before it gets really de-humanising.

Without beginning an argument about BDSM, O gets no sexual pleasure from her submission. It's not about her; it's about her doing it for him, even when he's not around to witness and even when she realises that he doesn't want her. And it's narrated by a distanced and anonymous voice, whose gentle – almost prudish – prose leaves it as erotic as a Jehovah's Witness magazine. If pornography is meant to arouse, there's something much more to this book than its reputation, and its popularity may rest on how its distanced narration and calm description puts responsibility on the reader to imagine what O feels.

Co-creators Kate Davis and Emma Valente make us see how O feels.

And see it in ways far removed from the novel – but this doesn't matter as they only use a handful of words from the text, which it is as accurate as it needs to be and as creative as it should be.

As co-artistic directors of The Rabble, Davis designed and Valente directed, but it's difficult to sense a clear differentiation. With exquisite beauty and understanding, they've taken this fantasy tale about submission out of the imagination of its readers, queered it up, reversed some genders, whirled it around, put it in close up and thrust it back at us with such bold confidence that we understand how it's impossible to say no.

Aesthetically, the 60s French polo necks, jaunty stripes and elastic garters are given a nod, but O's world isn't wealthy Parisian chateaus. At first, it's a girly dream with merry-go-round ponies and pink flowers scattered on the floor. But horses are beasts to ride and poles are used to tie horses up. And even with its flung ribbons, party hats and ice cream, all is not as pretty as it looks.

The cast are as desirous and pleasing as the world they play in. Gary Abrahams is Rene (O's lover), Jane Montgomery Griffiths is Sir Stephen (who is given O by Rene), Pier Cathew is Anne-Marie (the older lesbian who brands O for Sir Stephen), Dana Miltins is Jacqueline (loved by O and wanted by Rene) and Emily Milledge is Nathalie (Jaqueline's teenage sister who just wants to be like O). None of these relationships are spoken on the stage, but each take their character from the book and let them live in this through-the-looking glass world where everything about their book behaviour is questioned.

Milledge's Nathalie is especially moving and as Miltin's seven-month pregnant belly is ignored by Jacqueline, it's gold-clad roundness says more about the sexual portrayal of pregnant women than words could dare.

Which leaves Mary Helen Sassman as O. Her performance transcends any depiction of O that has gone before. She's scared, hurt, excited and – this is the twist – lets O say "No" and choose to keep going. She keeps going towards boredom, acceptance and far more hurt without ever revealing if O's own desires are met. Sassman's performance is already being described as fearless, but I say it's honest. It's so uncompromisingly honest that I think the walk-outs are because she makes them feel everything that O feels, which is far more confronting than the sex and violence shown.

So far, people have walked out. This is wonderful. How often does theatre create a response so powerful that people are brave enough to walk out when their exit is seen by the audience and the performers? On the night I went, the walk-outs were men and I wanted to run after them and tell them to go back in and really look at the stage, because this is how women are seen. If it's so shocking or offensive to leave when everyone on stage is fully clothed, the sex and violence are clearly faked and when kitchen and domestic appliances are the offending objects, perhaps a sense of the true offence can be felt.

If you want to run, ask why and remember the gift is for those who stay and laugh or cringe or cry or wonder if they should be feeling as good as they do.

Story of O is theatre like no one else dares to make.

Photos by Guy Little

This will also appear on AussieTheatre.com in a couple of days