Top Notch

Alright, then. The Churchill Fest has begun, as announced by the confusion, laughter and stunned silence of the packed house in attendance on opening night of the Tom Hendry Theatre’s performance of one of Caryl Churchill’s best plays — Top Girls.

A little clarity would have been gained, should you have attended the free public lecture, Introducing Carol Churchill, held at the King’s Head pub the night before. Bill Kerr, assistant professor in the University of Manitoba’s drama department, delivered an entertaining, well-rehearsed and informative lecture which included a litany (in a good way) of the ridiculous stunts which Churchill is known to pull on an unsuspecting audience — such as having characters switching roles mid-way through the performance or switching the order of scenes in a performance.

In her article in the Ovation provided to patrons prior to the show (say that 10 times fast), Ann Hodges, who somehow managed to do an incredible job, says: “Normally, I rehearse a play in chronological order [ . . . ] This isn’t what I’m planning with Top Girls. Caryl Churchill throws chronology out the window.”

Isn’t that fun? Don’t answer that rhetorical question in the negative until you’ve seen this play, because you surely won’t after. But let’s get back to the actual play. There are three acts — none of which bear any relation to each other — except that they do. OK? You figure it out.
In the first act, Marlene (performed exquisitely by Philippa Domville), who is employed at the Top Girls Employment Agency, has just been promoted to managing director. A celebratory dinner is thrown in her honour (or she throws it for herself, we’re not clear on this). Invited are five powerful women from history.

The first to arrive is Isabella Bird (Marina Stephenson Kerr — who also plays Joyce and Mrs.
Kidd), the daughter of a 19th-century Yorkshire clergyman who foreswore marriage and children in favour of becoming a globetrotter. She adds a great deal of comic relief — as well as confusion — as she insists on continuing to talk during another character’s soliloquy. Each audience member is given the choice of which character to listen to — choice being one of Churchill’s theatrical centrepieces.

Next is Lady Nijo (Jennifer Villaverde, who also plays Win), a 13th-century Japanese concubine who grew up in the imperial court, and who gave birth to a child of the emperor as well as three other children from three other fathers. She barely had time to see her children before they were removed from her care.

Then came Pope Joan (Sharon Bajer who would also play Marlene’s sister, Louise, in the final scene) — a legendary pope of the ninth century who masqueraded as a man until she gave birth to a child, immediately following which both she and the infant were stoned to death by the populace.

Patient Griselda (Daria Puttaert plus two other roles), a fictional character derived from both The Decameron and Canterbury Tales, is a peasant woman who marries a nobleman and believes in spousal obedience in the extreme, leading to numerous indignities.

Lastly, Dull Gret (Tracy Penner who also plays the central role of Angie in acts II and III), whose character is based on Dulle Griet, a painting by the 16th-century Flemish painter, Peter Brueghel (the Elder), which depicts a woman leading the forces of femininity in an assault on hell.

Although none of these characters ever appears in the play again, their portrayal at the dinner party is essential, as their characters and their stories inform the other characters they play.
Indeed, each of them has achieved positions of power but at supreme sacrifices. It is clear that feminist undertones inform Top Girls.

Given that the other acts take place in rural England, with the final act depicting the class conflict between Marlene and her sister, Louise — Marlene having left home at an early age to become successful in London — and that all of this takes place during the tenure of Margaret Thatcher, as prime minister of England, one would expect that politics will also strongly inform the play.

One would be right. Churchill has inherited the mantle of Bertolt Brecht while throwing in a bit of Samuel Beckett (both of whom have been subjects of earlier playwrights’ festivals.)
Top Girls is applied cultural theory delivered with shock and awe and an incredible sense of comic timing. This is incredible and well worth full recommendation. See you at the rest of the fest.

Top Girls runs until Feb. 6 at the MTC Warehouse, Tom Hendry Theatre.