Written by Caryl Churchill in the 1970s, Objections to Sex and Violence was Chruchill’s first production on a mainstage. Currently downtown at the Artscape Sandbox, it is a surprisingly relevant play, set against the political background of the 1970’s: the sexual revolution, and the global protest movement. But Churchill’s play invokes the political in a personal way, as the prospect of violence frames the background of all of the characters, and is revealed through their personal confessions and interactions. Two sisters meet on a beach: Annie, still recovering from an abusive relationship in her past, comes looking for Jule. Annie’s current patner, Phil, is a pacifist. This grates on Jule, a political activist. Then Eric, one of her fellow activists, appears. He pontificates narcissistically about politics and capitalism.
Violence is a constant theme and constant threat, and permeates the action. There is a kind of violence in Eric’s postulating, in Annie’s concern-trolling of her sister, and in her accusations after Phil ‘confesses’ a tryst to her. Each of these characters is trying to effect change in themselves, in the world, and in each other. Sex is used as a threat, and the withholding of sex is seen as a weapon. At one point Jule starts hurling oil-soaked pop cans at Eric, at another Eric crushes a small ice cream cone in his hands while yelling at Jule. These small personal details provide visceral reminders of the political background.
Their attempts to use violence to affect each other or to demand recognition all fail in various ways, and the final scene of the play – between Jule and her husband Terry – is in stark contrast to this. This final scene adds a depth to the previous hour, since it becomes clear that Churchill isn’t trying to make broad, superficial claims about how we are necessarily violent, or that violence is somehow inevitable. Here she shows us two people resisting violence, two people trying to connect but unable to. They are resigned to his, but their mutual respect for each other is surprisingly heartfelt. It seems that instead of making claims about human nature, Churchill is asking questions about our use of violence and its relationship to politics and personal relationships.
The acting in this production by The Sex + Violence Collective (with support from Praxis Theatre and FeverGraph Theatre) is strong across the board, but most notable is Zoë Sweet as Jule, the hub of the plot and on stage for almost the entire time. Philip Graeme is also great as meek Phil, whose pacifist personality, it turns out, is not so pacifist when he lets loose his pent up sexual rage on Jule in a terrifying scene where he reveals that he suffers from Nice Guy Syndrome.
The set has such a presence that it almost feels like another character in the show. It is simple: a rectangular mound of sand in the centre of the three-part audience created the beach. Peppered with oily, black debris, the set itself underlined the coarse, uncomfortable feeling of the action. The stark lighting shifts help to punctuate the scenes, almost becoming scenes unto themselves as they often coordinate with slow motion movement or dramatic poses from each of the characters that are symbolic of the emotional turmoil of the story.
This play is refreshing both in its relevance to the sexual and global politics of today, but also in its careful and thoughtful execution. Definitely a good one to catch.
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