Review: Collective Rage at Southwark Playhouse

Collective Rage is about 5 Betties at vastly different intersections of society living in New York. The Betties range from middle-aged rich, white, married Betty to young black, gender fluid, just got out of prison Betty. In the middle of them is a Betty who wants to be a star, a Betty who wants to be loved and a Betty in love. They all occupy different spaces both physically in society, and emotionally in themselves and they’re all exploring their queerness. Playwright Jen Silverman uses a chance dinner party to draw them together and, one link at a time, connects all the Betties together until finally - pretty much inexplicably - they decide to create a play together. If you’re anything like me you’re reading this like: women? Tick! Different intersections? Tick! Queerness? Tick!!!! A play about putting on a play? Oh. errrrrr….!?!?!?

It’s taken me a full week to compute my thoughts and feelings around Collective Rage. It’s a complicated, startling, feast of a thing. I say feast because in the first ten minutes there’s a speech which starts ‘ARE WE GONNA TALK ABOUT EATING PUSSY OR NOT!!???' I read something the other day which said going down on a girl is like being at a restaurant with several sets of cutlery: you start from the outside and you work your way in.

So, let’s start from the outside. We enter the space to see Anna Reid’s set, where each of the actors is pre-set as the audience file in. The space is a mash-up of a boxing gym, a truck garage and a set of stairs leading to a top level which feels more private (somewhere between a dressing room and a bedroom). It’s all a touch busy so it's hard to focus - especially on those on the top section. This doesn’t feel so much like a metaphor as it does a missed opportunity to see how women mediate and prepare themselves in their private spaces. It surprises me that director Charlie Parham, one-fifth of drag act Denim, didn’t explore how women transform in front of their mirrors a little more.

The play opens with Sarah Stewart, Betty 1, delivering a rapid speech about being angry after watching the news and speaking to her husband ‘Richard I SAID RICHARD’ about it.  Stewart's costume manifests her particular brand of privilege; we’re being told only a childless, middle-aged, wealthy white woman could really comfortably pull off this pristine white two piece. Collective Rage sets up all these types, purely so that it can unravel them. It’s the oldest trick in the book, but it does work. Wading through the external clunk makes our arrival at the centre of all these women all the more revealing.

Sara Stewart, Lucy McCormick, Beatriz Romilly, Johnnie Fiori and Genesis Lynea are all very different performers but they all share the same fierce presence which burns from their tongues and radiates through the room. After a lifetime of seeing women settle for weakly written support roles, it’s refreshing beyond words to see five leads share the stage with such ease and power.

I am relieved to say they’re not written as ‘strong women’. We see them struggling with their mental health, their vulnerabilities and their sexualities, but persevering nonetheless, working themselves out, messing up, being weird, being selfish, being hungry, being brilliant, struggling as their prejudices come into direct conflict with their desires: basically being real. Not strong women: real women. Of different shapes, sizes and colours. Collective Rage takes those homogenous ideas of what femininity, queerness, gender and privilege are and throws them around the ring for an hour and a half and that’s brilliant.

It’s not an easy watch though, the form is strugglesome - the presence of a narrator naming each scene, for example, borders on irritating and hinders emotional connection. I wasn’t sure about the play within the playness of it (there are a few too many one-liners about being an actress which only the non-actresses in the audience laugh at) and the music could have been infinitely better chosen.

That said, I haven’t stopped thinking about Collective Rage all week. It strikes me now that it hit my emotions in a way I’m not used to them being hit and that maybe my struggle to completely articulate how I felt about Collective Rage is the best thing about it. The fact that I wanted certain moments to be more risque is, on the one hand, a comment on me, but even more so a comment on the theatre I’m used to seeing; theatre can have a tendency to pander to us, to give us everything we want at the exact moments we want it.

Collective Rage doesn’t play that game. It exposes all our nerve endings without us totally realising, refuses us some climaxes, overplays others we’re less interested in and suddenly gives us one we didn’t know we wanted. Just like Betties 1-5, I arrived at the theatre space with a heap of expectations about what I want and what I need. I got pretty much none of those things, but I got something better. And that's wasn't just exciting - it was transgressive. 

Collective Rage ends 17th February. Grab your tickets here. 
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Photo credit: Jack Sain