'Rapture, Blister, Burn' review or 'Are you sure we've covered the whole syllabus?'
‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’, Gina Gionfriddo
Hampstead Theatre, 22nd January 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo
Just how far has feminism come, anyway? This is the central question of Gina Gionfriddo’s new play, ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’, which sees a successful academic begin to question her life choices. Thankfully, this isn’t a strident feminist rant; Gionfriddo gives just as much airtime to anti-feminist campaigner Phyllis Schlafly as she does to Betty ‘The Feminine Mystique’ Friedan. No stone is left un-turned, which is perhaps why this play - for all its wit and precision – ends up feeling a little dry.
Emilia Fox stars as the conflicted academic Catherine, who returns home to look after her mother. Faced with the possibility of a motherless middle-age, Catherine re-assesses her priorities. It’s pretty easy to do this, since her abandoned priorities live just a few blocks away, in the form of ex-boyfriend Don (the rakishly charming Adam James) and his wife Gwen. Did Catherine make the right decision all those years ago, when she left Don in the States to pursue her career in London?
It’s a familiar and useful dilemma; if only Gionfriddo had explored her ideas in a slightly less formal fashion. But this play is as tidily constructed as they come. Don, the discipline officer at the local college, sets up a summer course for Catherine to teach. And who happens to enrol on this course? Only Don’s frustrated Gwen (Emma Fielding) and balsy young student, Avery! And exactly what is on the curriculum? Why, feminism and pornography, of course!
As the lessons unfold, it feels like Gionfriddo is peering over our shoulders and director Peter DuBois is prodding us from the wings. It is very annoying to be spoon-fed in such a fashion. Catherine’s mother is hauled into the lessons, to provide another generation’s perspective. Thus the whole spectrum of feminism is conveniently completed. Catherine hovers in the middle, her mother veers towards female submission and fierce Avery cries out triumphantly, ‘Outsource the home-maker shit!’
Things do get a little less starchy, as real-life begins to cloud the characters’ ideals. Avery (Shannon Tarbert on brutal, scene-stealing form) quickly drops her feminist ideals, when she realises she risks losing her boyfriend. And whilst Alice (Polly Adams) might sympathise with the stay-at-home-mum, she also encourages her daughter to pounce on married-man Don; ‘You can have him!’
Fox is an intelligent performer but she has been landed with a very self-conscious role. It often feels like her character is speaking for the play rather than herself. In fact, on the night I watched, the most spontaneous line came from the audience. When Don performs a final act of hypocrisy, a disgusted spectator cried out, ‘Whaaaaaaat!’ An important play, then, which is easy to care about but hard to love.