Wednesday, 22 November 2000

The Women's Gaol Project, Nov 22, 2000

by Karen Martin
at Women's Refractory VUT Sunbury campus
November 22-December 9, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The visit to the Federation style late 19th century Sunbury Women's Gaol is strangely disembodying.

We experience the site of women's incarceration, we hear the stories of women committed as insane when they were actually suffering menopausal, post-natal depression or alcoholism. We see the tiny cells and the canvas straight-jacket camisoles in which they were trapped.

One needs to either shift the experience to arm's length to avoid the emotional pain of empathy with theses victims or else to enter whole-heartedly even skinlessly into it to feel the weight of history and its abuse of the women.

The restored Building M6A at the gaol is the site of this installation performance written and directed by Karen Martin and performed by Helen Hopkins, Maria  Papastamopolous Ruth Bauer and Judy Roberts.

The building was called The Women's Refractory because it as for 'refractory' of difficult, violent, noisy, uncontrollable patients.

We enter the cyclone wire gates and out first stop is the verandah where historical computer, photographic and painterly images tell the stories of women who were 'committed by friends or by 'husband and brother' or who 'knifed a nurse'.

Inside the rectangular courtyard we may move between three sites. At each location a woman appears near-naked, painted the colour and pattern of the federation brickwork. (make-up by Jane Ormond OK) She is so dehumanised by her incarceration that she has become part of the brickwork.  It is haunting, surprising and moving.

Bauer climbs acrobatically on ropes speaking in the language of contemporary cultural theory  and as writer Virginia Woolf who was a depressive.

Papastamopolous voices the desire for touch, speaks as the ancient Greek prophetess, Cassandra and cries 'How long must one live like this?, a question that wrenches at the heart as we see and hear the abuses to which they were subjected.

The references to Woolf and Cassandra are not necessary or particularly relevant and the production is not theatrically or textually very innovative. It is not creation of believable dramatic characters that moves us but the constant reminder of the reality of the stories and the palpable presence of the women crying out from the past in this place.

Roberts stands atop a roof singing and reciting a litany of case histories of women from the institution.

This is a powerful piece that drags us screaming into the past to visit the horror of institutions at the turn of the century. Are we kinder now? Who knows.

By Kate Herbert
for 2 pages:

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