Sydney Festival Review: The Town Hall Affair argues the need for more lively feminist debates

The original “Town Hall” debate was no ordinary affair. So it should come as no surprise that the one-act play based on this historic event is no ordinary piece of theatre. The show comes courtesy of New York’s The Wooster Group and rather than a straight, re-telling of an already chaotic feminist discussion, they inject other forms of media and theatre to provide one rich and lively show.

This play is directed by Elizabeth LeCompte and it makes its Australian premiere as part of the Sydney Festival. It is one that is predominantly based on a film called Town Bloody Hall by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus after the former shot the event in 1971 in New York. Excerpts of this film are used quite judiciously here on a large screen at the centre of the stage.

The evening was all about having a discussion about women’s liberation at the time when some important literature had been published. Germaine Greer had written The Female Eunuch and Kate Millett had published Sexual Politics. But perhaps the most explosive text was Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner Of Sex, originally an essay and eventually written into a book. The night was billed as a dialogue on women’s liberation and Mailer proved to be the immoderate moderator and primary chauvinist of the evening.

The proceedings begin with seven actors entering the stage (or the lion’s den depending on your outlook of the main event.) Kate Valk plays Jill Johnston, a radical feminist and journalist from The Village Voice. She reads some excerpts from her forthcoming biography, Lesbian Nation and describes the Town Hall debate that partially informed it as the “Social event of the season.” It’s a curious choice of words as she seems intent on derailing it as much as possible. When it comes time for Johnston to deliver her speech she errs more into the territory of personal manifesto. She is witty and biting, declaring that “All women are lesbians” and that “Some women want to have their cock and eat it too.” There will no doubt be some new fans of Johnston’s after this show, especially after people see Valk’s wonderful performance.

Johnston’s sermonising ultimately runs over time. Mailer interjects and shuts her down in an incredibly humiliating and brutal way. So Johnston’s response was to engage in an impromptu physical display of affection with some fellow women attendees. Yes, this actually happened at the real Town Hall. This act was described by Mailer at the time as like witnessing a “Mess of dirty overalls.”

Mailer is played here by two actors (Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd). He is acerbic and filled with misogynistic bravado. His barbs are thick and constant, even referring to some of his fellow panellists as condescending “lady” writers (something that author, Susan Sontag who was in the audience will take exception with during the question and answer session.) Mailer’s own “act” is disrupted by The Wooster’s with a re-enactment of a famous scene from his film, Maidstone where Mailer is attacked with a hammer. Perhaps this is symbolic of Mailer’s struggle over his own ideologies at the time but it adds another confusing layer to proceedings that are already quite strange and chaotic in parts.

Maura Tierney (ER) plays Greer – and like the rest of the company – she delivers her speech while accompanied by and often syncing up with the black and white video from the original evening. Greer made some interesting comments on the night about male and female artistry. She also looked positively regale in her black dress and fur stole, the antithesis to the matronly, Diana Trilling. The latter is curiously played by a man (Greg Mehrten) who looks a little like this prim and proper academic but he is still an odd choice to play a woman in a feminist debate. Trilling’s discussion was about a few topics, the most incendiary being the existence of the vaginal orgasm, something that was being argued at the time. It is apparent by the end of the debate that all of the panellists were all very white and of a similar class level because while there was room to address topics like these- they actually failed to get to these issues.

The Town Hall Affair is an important piece, perhaps even more so today in the era of Trump and all of the unfinished business with respect to equality. The show ultimately poses some serious arguments in an artistic and offbeat way. Sometimes this makes for a more entertaining rendering while at other moments it can cloud and conflate the issues it is trying to address. At the very least, The Town Hall Affair offers lots of ideas and things for the audience to ponder and question so in a sense it proves that this raw, warts and all discussion was in fact an affair to remember- both then and now.


The Town Hall Affair plays at the Sydney Opera House as part of Sydney Festival until 13 January. For more information please head HERE.

The reviewer attended the performance on January 7.

Photo by Prudence Upton, Sydney Festival


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