17 October, Municipal Theatre
“She’s not as innocent as she looks on the $10 note”, says my companion. Kate Sheppard that is, because That Bloody Woman is a musical about Kate, that Kate. It’s an anarchic rock opera of a thing that paints Kate as rebellious, militant, opinionated (like all good women should be).
It riffs on the theme of anarchy. Punk costuming and attitude form a strong, surprising but completely fitting skeleton off which the story is hung. It’s a Trainspotting monologue that sends Kate off from Blighty heading for the Shaky Isles and shake things up she does. From there, musical genres are played with and manipulated with mastery. The lyrics are tremendous – fuck the flag change, I vote to make God’s own Country our new anthem! Much of the song-writing leans heavily on wit to deliver the message but amidst that there are some poignant gems that are beautiful and emotional.
From the first flash of hairy pits, this is a feminista wake-up call, re-awakening is perhaps more apt. Lyrics early on say Kate’s spent “124 years watching her legacy get fucked”. And as old as this story now is, it’s not history, its themes still echo in the current. The Trump here, the Ardern now, the Me-Too and the Are-You-Okay campaigns peppering social media feeds. 124 years after the fact we still need the “shit stirrers and agitators” Kate and her lot were, as sung in glam rock ballad form by Sheppard’s “flock” and spectacular “house band” The Hallelujah Bonnets.
The show careens from political rally to gospel prayer meeting, complete with animated, involved audience, arms in the air, screaming Amen. Use of the audience is theatrically effective but also deeply satisfying to be part of. We are invested. We carry as many guises as the supporting cast. We are Dick’s political supporters, the congregation at Kate’s wedding, we are the “curious women and confused men” who witnessed the changing society Kate was pivotal in.
Although Kate, played by Esther Stephens, is a tad aloof and saccharine in parts, we are right there with her in her battle against “the drink” and then for The Vote. Her sidekicks (played by the hardworking Phoebe Hurst and Amy Straker) are stronger singers and more dynamic actors but they need to be to pull off the myriad roles they perform. Alongside these gutsy, loud broads, Kyle Chuen and Cameron Douglas are comfortable playing a full gamut of men in supporting roles: fathers, husbands, lovers, rivals, comrades. Geoffrey Dolan’s King Dick Seddon is terrific. Part gangster, part gangsta his We Love Dick rap is roll-in-the-aisles funny.
Costuming has strong bones and is built on with threadbare cardi, gaffer tape facial hair, a dazzling metal breast plate, a collar of dead animals, all to great effect. Costumes are layered and played with, giving a clean and consistent palette that reinforces characterisation. There are no pauses for costume change; it’s a tight piece that finds ways for the cast to reposition, reset and redress seamlessly.
The telling of the story manages to navigate a path too between delivering historic fact alongside entertaining and thought-provoking contemporary commentary. It retains its bold political themes in its telling of the story and in the layers of subtext and critical analysis woven through it.
In a week of political limbo this show is a perfect fit. From lyrics: “His cabinet was a storm shelter for the mediocre”, “there’s nothing more exhausting than fighting apathy” through to song titles: Fuck Fuck Fuckity Fuck (a tremendous call-and-response tune) That Bloody Woman is topical and timely.
There are moments when the feminist in me wonders when ‘what you wear’ and ‘who you screw’ will no longer be defining plot points in our her-story, but this is nit-picking at the one weakness of the piece. My throat is hoarse from hollering and my eyes still wet from witnessing the 31,872 signatures that won women the vote, and the one woman who led the fight in the first place.