American playwright, Gina Gionfriddo had a great success a couple of years ago at the Almeida Theatre with the comic blind-date-and-its-repercussions play, Becky Shaw. Gionfriddo returns to the highly personal again in her latest, Rapture, Blister, Burn but expands it to cast a comprehensive look over modern feminism, its theory and practise and particularly in relation to pornography and the internet.
That’s some undertaking and Gionfriddo doesn’t lessen the ambition by cutting corners. We get full-on explanations, chapter and verse dating back to Betty Friedan’s 1960s The Feminine Mystique. Opposed to Friedan’s denunciation of women’s role as restricted only to being that of a good wife and mother, Gionfriddo introduces Phyllis Schlafly, a name I confess not familiar to me but the equivalent to some extent of a Mary Whitehouse here. Schlafly, a pro-lifer, fought against the US’s Equal Rights Amendment and saw feminism then – and to this day – as a deep threat to the natural order of things.
Gionfriddo is far too canny a writer however just to leave it to polemics. Although R,B,B is a deeply loquacious play – the arguments for and against are minutely and eloquently dissected – they are set within a cleverly see-sawing personal marital and familial framework embodying career versus family.
Emilia Fox’s high flying academic returns to her home town. Her mother has suffered a heart-attack and touching on 40, both events have combined to re-evaluate her life. She also re-encounters her long-lost boyfriend, Don (a wonderfully laconic, life-stunted Adam James), `stolen’ from her by her best friend, Gwen (Emma Fielding). Cue also the family’s baby-sitter, Avery (a stunning Shannon Tarbet) and Catherine’s (too-good-to-be-true) mother, Alice (Polly Adams) and you have a neatly packaged three-generational, inter-gendered set-up for discussing and illuminating the flaws in both arguments for and against lonesome career or unsatisfactory home-maker.
That Gionfriddo manages the play’s intellectual and emotional developments with such aplomb says much for her even-handedness and control of her material though some might baulk, in the end, at her slightly sanguine approach to pornography.
But in Giofriddo’s book, neither the absolutism of career or home-maker wins out. Indeed, coming down on the right to fail, to carry on with a certain mediocrity comes as something of a welcome relief in today’s highly pressurised world of perfectionism and is conveyed with gleeful smoothness and dexterity in Peter Dubois’s accomplished production.
Most engaging of all – and almost worth the journey alone – is Shannon Tarbet’s wiser-than-her-years media student. Cutting across ambiguities, rationalisations and self-delusion, Avery speaks with the clarity of know-it-all youth (and possibly her author’s persuasions) with an open-eyed realism that is both an uncomfortable antidote to her elders floundering values but also highly entertaining viewing.
Typical of this writer that even she, in the end, opts for pragmatism, the play may in the end be no more than a bunch of ciphers but in this play their human patina also takes on a highly seductive and mostly convincing sheen.