Revolt, as I understand it – psychic revolt, analytic revolt, artistic revolt – refers to a permanent state of questioning, of transformations, an endless probing of appearances.
— Julia Kristeva
Language uses us as much as we use language.
— Robin Lakoff. LANGUAGE AND A WOMANS PLACE (1972)
The ‘quiet carriage’ of a country train was probably not the most suitable place for a first encounter with Alice Birch’s play Revolt. She said. Revolt again. With its stylistic innovation, taut brilliant language and bold scope—the words leapt off the page. The urge to whoop, howl with laughter or burst into tears was hard to contain.
It’s rare to feel so excited by a script. Here is a writer who loves language. Who not only thinks deeply about words and their meaning, but understands the rhythm and music of language. Birch’s vision is in turns angry, horrifying, playful, hilarious, subtle and explosive. I immediately admired the courage of a relatively young writer for simply squaring off with such an enormous subject—that is what it might mean to be a woman in the 21st century.
This play came out of a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013. The provocation was a famous statement made in 1976 by American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: ‘well-behaved women rarely make history’. Infuriated and spurred by this sentence, Birch churned out Revolt. She said. Revolt again. in just three days. One of her suggestions for staging is that the play itself should not be well-behaved. The permission this offers is both thrilling and terrifying.
Birch comes from the rich tradition of British playwriting and there are echoes of Pinter, Churchill, Crimp, Stephens and Kane in her work. Yet her voice is unbelievably distinct. Her smart writing demands the audience keep up. As a director, my first questions were something like: How do you stage that bit? And what about that bit?
Rather than discussing anything fundamentally new, Revolt. She said. Revolt again. asks us to think about questions and problems that never seem to go away. If you view history as one long war against women and their bodies, then this piece feels as prescient and urgent as ever. As the mother of two young girls, who will soon face the challenges of becoming women and making their way in the world, this play spoke to me.
A huge thanks to the generous and intelligent people who have worked with me to realise this production: Belinda McClory, Ming-Zhu Hii, Elizabeth Esguerra, Sophie Ross and Gareth Reeves, Marg Horwell, Emma Valente, James Brown, Tia Clark, Laura Hartnell, Hannah Bullen and M’ck McKeague.