PearShaped’s debut show, Conquest, adds to the (fantastic) abundance of feminist discourse on offer at this year’s VAULT Festival – but a lack of focus in the writing, and often lecturey tone of voice, make the politics and intended audience effect tricky to decipher.
Writer Katie Caden and her all-female creative team are ambitious in their endeavour to fold so many timely feminist conversations into one 60-minute piece. Conquest, playing at this year’s VAULT Festival, offers audiences a candid perspective on consent, reflections on many structural inequalities that continue to affect every woman every day, lighthearted nods to the minefield and potential pitfalls of modern-day feminism and a narrative involving chance encounters in pharmacies, dodgy cupcakes and underground activist guilds.
On top of this, the writing and direction also play with form, with meta-theatrics and with the fourth wall. One actor stops the other mid-sentence, proclaiming that she can ‘do it better’ (ie. deliver the line). The audience occasionally find themselves confronted, not by any of the characters being multi-roled but by the actors directly. We’re asked to ‘get out the door’ if we’re not prepared to listen to what will subsequently be said said, and that ‘if we find [a certain line of argument] complicated’, we’ve got no hope at understanding the next bit.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve no issue with brazen treatment of audiences, nor with any of the assertions Conquest makes. There’s just a huge amount going on for a 60-minute piece – too much, I’d probably argue, for it to be entirely digestible, and entirely clear in its politics. Scenes blur into one another, a deliberate decision for sure, but often a jarring one. We’re never quite spared enough breathing room – in either directorial or writing decisions – to warm to characters, or performers. Lucy Walker-Evans and Colette Eaton bring energy and passion to their performances, but everything’s just structurally a little relentless – which echoes the company’s anger (which is clear and palpable and entirely justified) but makes the viewing experience perhaps the wrong type of ‘uncomfortable’, and the intended effect slightly confused.
There really are some cracking discussion points packed into the text though; out of all the feminist work I’ve seen, for example, the observations Conquest makes about the unbalanced power dynamics of sex (and the ‘meta narrative’ of sperm reaching egg) are superbly rich in dramatic potential and relatively unexplored. But the company just also need to be careful that this subject matter is not relayed in a manner which comes across as lecturey, verging on isolating. PearShaped could really be onto something by focusing a show closer to inequality in the bedroom (the team clearly have a lot of smart things to say about it, and that topic alone could easily result in a fab 60-minute piece), but should – more smartly than they manage here, I’d argue – find a way to take audience on that journey.