‘None of this history is simple, just as nothing about gender is simple’: Alison Croggon on Rachel Perks’ and Bridget Balodis’ queer witches in Moral Panic
Rachel Perks’ play Moral Panic, directed with a deft and imaginative hand at Darebin Speakeasy by Bridget Balodis, is an intriguing counter-invocation to linguistic and legalistic misogyny. Drawing from the histories of witchburnings, Perks attempts to break open the structures of patriarchal language to make space for the multiple identities of queerness.
The queerness Perks and Balodis explore is well described by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her essay collection Tendencies: “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality, aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically”. There are certainly all sort of gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances here, and plenty of excess.
I think this production is partially successful, and where it succeeds, it succeeds indeed: at times it’s skin-tinglingly potent and beautiful, while at others it sinks bewilderingly into the merely obvious, even to the banal. Ultimately I think that in reaching for the large gesture, Perks ends up mirroring the very thing she wants to destroy. It embodies a dilemma faced by anyone who wants to imagine otherwise: how do we think outside the structures that encompass us all?
Among other things, Moral Panic is a play full of, and about, language. Language and magic are profoundly related: it’s not going too far to claim that language is itself a kind of magic. It’s a technology that both creates and destroys realities, breaking barriers open or invisibly legislating the boundaries of what it is possible to think or imagine.
By the time most of us acquire language, we have forgotten how massive a conceptual leap it is. Watching the struggles of a child learning to speak, or to read and write, can remind you. After all, words are a bunch of abstract sounds or gestures or marks that we use to stand in as representations of reality. Once we permit words to represent, language begins to metastasise, creating its own realities: gods, laws, grammars, categories, states, myths, literatures, philosophies.
One of the most commonplace and invisible tasks of language is to inscribe and ascribe power. Which returns us to magic and witchcraft which, in the lands of Christendom, often functioned as a subtext or counter text to the patriarchal languages of power. It’s this sense that Moral Panic particularly explores.
There are three, or maybe four, distinct acts, each of them employing a radically different theatricality. It opens with the Mayor (Chanelle Macri) of an unnamed town warning against the witches in the town’s midst, spitting out a list of prohibitions against female autonomy and sexuality that begins to choke him. He transforms into a woman listing those same prohibitions as an act of protest and defiance. It’s perhaps the most successful demonstration of linguistic ambiguity in the play, showing us how context and embodiment can shape and change meanings.
We’re then plunged into a beguiling comedy, as we encounter the quarrelling pair Evelyn (Eva Seymour) and Andy (Kai Bradley) stumbling through a dark forest towards the site of a 200 year old witch burning. They’re on their way to curse Evelyn’s uncle, the Mayor we saw previously, who turns out to be the husband of Callista (Jennifer Vuletic) and the father of Sue Anne (Chanelle Macri), both of whom turn up later. Evelyn has a jar of menses she’s collected for the potion and Andy has the digital ouija board they’ve used to contact one of the dead witches. As with all magic, there’s a price: someone, we learn, has to be inhabited by the soul of the dead witch.
Callista is summoned when their spell fails, and more or less takes over as senior witch. They’re transported via the ouija board into the second act, a kind of surreal dream world where their inadmissible desires – Evelyn’s for Sue Anne, Callista’s for Andy, Andy’s deep, destructive anger – are permitted to be spoken. This was for me the least exciting part of the show: after some promising abstract theatrical images – legs walking under a partly raised curtain, two of the actors, now in identical costumes, making choreographed movements – the text began to lapse into therapeutic explanation. Here the notion of multiple identity is more described than shown.
The third act begins with a straightforward account of “what happened”, the slaughter of the witches, read by two of the actors from notes, which then segues into a full-on invocation of war against the patriarchy, voiced by the incandescent Jenny Vuletic.
What drives the production’s convictions through are the performances. All the actors are grounded and truthful, and when they are funny they are very funny; but Vuletic can’t but command the stage whenever she is on it. She’s extraordinary to watch, with an electric physical presence and the ability to vocalise extremity without the smallest waver. She is certainly very convincing as a witch.
The production also owes a lot to its design team. Romanie Harper’s flexible set is bisected by a white curtain and features tarpaulins covered with earth, which are lifted up to become some kind of suspended pod. With the aid of Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting, it suggests the shifting between different dimensions; during the dream sequence, for example, which otherwise feels subterranean, there’s a beautiful projection of clouds moving across blue skies. Meri Leeworthy’s immersive sound design is hugely impressive, creating uncanny choruses of disembodied whispers that sometimes seem to be coming from behind your shoulder, or sounds so violent they almost register as blows.
Moral Panic attempts to eschew conventional (patriarchal) dramaturgies, but somehow seems more about breaking down old structures rather than making the new. We’re still working with acts, for instance, and the language of the incantations are often rhyming couplets, which can’t but recall spells as we know them through the fictions of Shakespeare. Which is to say that the patriarchy, like God, is omnipresent, lurking within the very texture of the English language.
It’s possible to smash through this – I keep thinking of Caryl Churchill’s genuinely uncanny text about faerie, The Skriker. When the Skriker speaks, it’s a language of violence, a language that has violence done to it, that boils down speech to its constitutive elements to let in the uncanny body.
On reflection, I found myself a bit troubled by the underlying thought. One reason might be my particular preoccupations: I am very interested in witches and witch burnings, and maybe this got in the way while watching this play. It’s true that witch hunts are among the more horrifying examples of institutional misogyny. Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of the Witches, is a legal document written by Dominican monks as a means of identifying, prosecuting and punishing witches, and it makes very clear that women, through the weakness of female sexuality in particular, are most prone to the wiles of the devil.
However, historically witches weren’t exclusively female (“warlock” is a much later usage for male witch, often traced to Hollywood). I had to keep telling myself that the history the play employs is a fantasy: a metaphor for the violence visited against the bodies, not just of women, but of those who exist beyond the binaries of heterosexual patriarchy.
Most people burned or tortured weren’t witches at all: some were midwives or women who lived on their own or were socially outcast; others accused of witchcraft were heretic thinkers such as Giordano Bruno. The Würzburg witch trial, one of the most savage in 17th century Germany, burned boys and girls, men and women: its 900 victims included councillors, inn keepers, the nine-year-old heir of the house of Rotenhahn, four play actors, “the fattest burgher in Wurzburg” and several noblemen. (Many witch hunts were actually land grabs, as a witch’s estate was forfeited).
None of this history is simple, just as nothing about gender or identity is simple. The story of the witch burning in Moral Panic, on the other hand, relates the murder of every woman in the town by all the men: a kind of monolithic gender war. And it seemed to me that the play’s simplifications of this very complex history are, paradoxically, symptoms of the binaries it’s trying to escape. I wanted more. I kept thinking: it’s not that simple. I found myself wondering how much we are in danger of reproducing the same simplicities that keep killing us.
Moral Panic by Rachel Perks, directed by Bridget Balodis. Set and costumes by Romanie Harper, lighting by Amelia Lever-Davidson, sound design by Meri Leeworthy. Performed by Kai Bradley, Chanella Macri, Eva Seymour and Jennifer Vuletic. Northcote Town Hall, Darwin Arts. Until November 24. Bookings
Warnings: haze, loud noises, partial nudity, strong language, supernatural themes, adult content, references to gendered violence, strobe lighting. Ages 14 +
Auslan Interpreted Performance: 8pm, Thursday November 22
Relaxed Performance: 2pm, Saturday November 24.