“How do we define the female experience?” is a question that has been continually at the centre of discourse surrounding gender inequality and feminism for about as long as these two concepts have existed in our world. To take this idea even further, the question, “Who has the right to speak on the female experience?” calls to attention the ideas of intersectionality and appropriation- nuances implying socio-economic and cultural differences within gender itself. Beverley Cooper’s newest dramatic work Janet Wilson Meets the Queen, making its world premiere with the Great Canadian Theatre Company, is a portrait of three women co-existing with completely different world views and perspectives on what it means to be a woman. Playing until May 8th, Janet Wilson Meets the Queen shows us the possible consequences in maintaining political apathy but is a stark reminder that one of feminism’s biggest challenges is the way in which mass social conditioning has led many of us to believe that in order to achieve one’s goals you must tear down others- even potential allies.
The text revolves around its namesake: Janet Wilson- a typical blue collar housewife in the 1960s (1969-1971 is the chronological time period of the play to be exact) who is raising an outspoken 15 year old daughter alongside an apathetic husband and her senile mother. Living in British Columbia, Janet really digs the British monarchy and as fate would have it she is chosen to present a bouquet of fresh flowers (as the head of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire organization) to Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who is coming to celebrate the province’s 100th anniversary of joining Confederation. Though, on the surface it feels almost like a Married with Children-type comedy, there is no doubting its darker undertones that reveal the numerous obstacles patriarchal capitalism inherently sets up for many (if not most) working class individuals.
Roger Shultz gives us a set design that uses the full potential of the main stage space at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre and, I found, strikes a nice balance between the realism and the more abstract elements found in the text. I remember attending the first read-through of the script earlier this month and being very intrigued by Shultz’s original design concepts whereby the traditional kitchen set would be surrounded by these, almost, “floating islands completely masked in black” which would represent the other areas of the house while still keeping the kitchen as the major focal point. Why this works so well, in my opinion, is because it highlights the growing disconnect between the family members within the household- each ‘room’, or area, is its own independent world with the kitchen acting as a central hub. Similarly, Shultz’s costume design is very well done in that it completely recalls the time period without ever feeling too cliché. Design-wise this production certainly achieves what it set out to do and successfully fleshes out Cooper’s universe in a way that is not only eye-catching for the audience but also (I’m sure) enjoyable for the performers to “live” in.
Director Andrea Donaldson’s casting choices are equally notable. The female performers in this particular show are powerhouses in their own way on stage, though neither one really outshines the other but rather all act together as a collaborative force. Katie Ryerson’s biggest strength as Lily is her ability to play young without completely demeaning the teenage experience. I imagine Donaldson played some part in orchestrating the tension between staging the teenager as stereotype for comedic relief and giving the character moments of her own profundity. Granny, played by Beverley Woolfe, is a compelling representative of her generation’s ideas about how women (and men) should look and act, but at the same time epitomizes society’s general attitudes towards the elderly- forgotten about, left to linger, and often exploited. Woolfe delivers a stellar performance embodying both Granny’s wry, seemingly unfiltered, humour but also manages the sheer poignancy of a woman quickly realizing her loss of independence as she enters into the final stages of life.
Rounding out the women in the family is Marion Day who plays the central figure- Janet Wilson. On stage Day brings this incredible lightness with her, which is ideal for Janet who begins the piece so very hopeful. As the play progresses we see this light start to diminish and Day displays how one can feel the most downtrodden they’ve ever felt and yet still act the perfect hostess. This is perhaps the most evident in the exchange that takes place towards the end of the play between Janet and her mother, where Granny has just, again, extolled the many virtues of her other daughter Amy. In this moment you can see Day (as Janet, of course) just swallow it all, put it aside, and ask her elderly and ailing mother if she’d like a hot water bottle for her feet. Powerful.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Tony Adams’ performance as Robbie, Janet’s free-spirited nephew. Adams feels like the perfect fit for the hippy-turned-soldier and he brings a lot of laughs to the stage (though I’m not sure if this is always a good thing). As the only male with dialogue in this piece, Adams’ presence acts as a completely new tension between the women, particularly Janet and Lily.
I have to be honest when I say that I have the most difficulty reconciling with Robbie as a dramatic figure. On the one hand, he’s a driving force in the lives of the Wilson women, causing Janet to re-evaluate her convictions when it comes to duty and circumstance and acting (somewhat) as a catalyst for Lily’s sexual awakening; he also comes to symbolize how patriarchy (as represented by Craig, Janet’s brother in law and Amy’s husband) is equally hurtful for men. On the other hand, I have trouble understanding the dramatic motivation behind the sexual assault that ultimately takes place.
If we are supposed to believe with some degree of certainty that Robbie is a practicing hippy, then how is sexual consent not a primary value for him? Or is this the point: to show potential hypocrisy in the “free love” mentality? It was my understanding (perhaps up to now) that it was a misconception (or even anti-hippy propaganda) about older hippies taking advantage of minors during this period of sexual revolution and not based in any sort of significant evidence that is reflective of the hippy culture itself. The most compelling aspects to Robbie, in my opinion, revolve around him identifying as part of this counterculture, debating the ethics of draft dodging, and what it means to be a man under the patriarchy. I feel a little disappointed by the fact that his predatory trajectory becomes ultra-clear and obvious the second he glances at his cousin Lily.
However, I felt even more disappointed, if not more than a little uncomfortable, when Robbie feeds Lily all these lines that girls are raised to expect hearing from men during sexual acts (“You have to finish me off…we’ve gone too far” and “You’re boyfriend will thank me”) as means of sexual pressure and manipulation and yet the entire theatre roared with laughter. Mind you, this is not necessarily the fault of the production or text but rather a consequence of general attitudes towards rape and sexual assault. I realize that it is a natural reaction to laugh when uncomfortable, but this is not the vibe that came across in the theatre as I was sitting there opening night. It’s 2016: we need to actively stop finding humour in the destructive misconception that men are nothing but sex-driven aggressors and start understanding that people are allowed to withdraw their sexual consent at any point without judgement. Assault is not funny: it’s invasive, violent, and affects many individuals for the rest of their lives. Lily’s assault is one of the prime motivating forces (if not the motivating force) behind her gravitating towards women’s liberation studies and the second-wave feminism that’s so prevalent during this period. It’s not some quirky character flaw, but an attack on her person that will forever define her identity and her relationships with other people (i.e. how she comes to view her mother as being nothing but subservient to “the man”).
In conclusion, while I was initially hesitant about watching yet another play set in the 60s-70s, I think that much of the playwright’s commentary in this text is still relevant today. We’re often quick to tear down individual’s choices if they somehow don’t match up with our own expectations of the female or male experience; and are equally quick to label other’s decisions as “empowered” though the actual definition of the word has become convoluted. Cooper does a great job here illustrating just how difficult it can be for women, in particular though not exclusively, to navigate and define themselves in society without pissing off at least one party. The character of Janet Wilson is the perfect example of this: she’s neither the quintessential housewife in the eyes of Granny nor is she the newly emancipated, strong woman Lily wants her to be. Janet Wilson’s identity is not accepted as being a “legitimate” woman and thus sees herself as a “missed opportunity”. I wouldn’t miss your opportunity to catch this thought-provoking production. Janet Wilson Meets the Queen: extended until May 8th. Ticket info can be found here.