Last week, Jess, Cleo and I spent a day in Niagara-On-The-Lake. A nice perk and useful benefit of The Shaw Festival recommending your show through a TCR grant is complimentary tickets to their season. This is particularly wonderful because NOTL is expensive (like, $34 for a 5oz glass of wine and a caesar salad kind of expensive), and we have little-to-no money on a fairly regular basis. So yes, we were lucky enough to spend a beautiful day in beautiful NOTL and stuff our faces with a beautiful amount of Cow’s ice-cream, which is SO delicious, omg.
What am I talking about again?
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was and remains a pivotal piece of feminist theatre that hits the zeitgeist of the early ’80s in an all at once pin-pointed and universal way. At its core, Top Girls follows the story of Marlene: a business executive at Top Girls (an employment agency), who has just been promoted to Managing Director. In the iconic opening scene, Marlene hosts a dinner party to celebrate her promotion and invites a group of historical and mythical female figures to join her. What we learn through this hilarious and poignant introduction is that while each woman at Marlene’s table is rightfully celebrated and remembered for being extraordinary, they are also full of themselves to the point where they have absolutely no idea how to properly interact with one another. The standout for me in this was Julia Course (fellow Guelph alum!) as Lady Nijo, whose self-assured smirks and nods while speaking of her adventures (as if anyone else was listening) were hysterical. I think the clear irony presented in this first act is essentially the base from which all of Churchill’s questions launch.
What does it take to be a top girl? What did it take then, in England, during the Thatcher years (which is when Churchill – who is an English playwright – wrote this and much of her work), and what does it take now? How have things changed? Have they changed at all?
I think the audience is meant to leave the theatre feeling extremely conflicted after taking in this piece. At least that was the case for the three of us – because rooting for Marlene is something you really want to do. You truly want her to succeed… actually, there’s a necessity to it… but you also kind of hate her because she’s not a very nice person. The decisions she’s made in her life to get to where she is, the consequences of those decisions, and the depiction of where she’d be if she hadn’t made them is confusing, sad and somehow motivating all at once.
I’ve read, studied, acted in and directed scenes from Top Girls, but seeing Shaw’s (raw, funny, strongly-ensembled) production of it demonstrated the brilliance of the catch-22 Churchill presents in a way that hadn’t quite clicked for me before. I think this excerpt from the programme sums that up nicely:
“In many ways, our support for Marlene, despite not really liking her very much, is Churchill’s point: political action requires us to hang together so that someday we can all reap the benefit, no matter how different our ambitions may be.”