LET MEN TREMBLE begins with an eerie image: seven women repeating a chain of sexual dance moves as three men in suits scrutinise them and take notes on clipboards. As the audience walks in to this scene, we are immediately put in a position of discomfort. Thoroughly disturbing, this scene is one of the play’s greatest strengths. This image of surveillance and control of women by men also sets up the play’s themes with a resonance that continues until the final moments.
What follows over the next 100 minutes is a scathing, take-no-prisoners performance on the tale of The Scarlet Letter, told through the lens of modern feminism and dark, spooky gothic theatre. While the male characters repeatedly use Greek chorus to take ownership over the historical record and institutions across the centuries, the female characters act out The Scarlet Letter and reveal an oppression of women that remains strong today.
The Danger Ensemble have chosen to explore the systemic nature of patriarchy through a fragmented structure, which includes breaking the fourth wall, monologues that disrupt The Scarlet Letter narrative and choreographed dance numbers. While these techniques break up the story and transform the stage into different times and settings, they remind me of devised work, especially when pop music is used. Perhaps more grounded and sincere stage business would eliminate this doubt.
Though sometimes lacking nuance and subtlety, the monologues and addresses to the audience hold more resonance than The Scarlet Letter plot itself. I find myself wishing that more of the piece showcase the voices and opinions of the performers. During these monologues, there is humour, struggle, lament, scathing wit and sadness all intertwined. Each is written with a nod to lived experiences, and works to counteract the patriarchal intensity of The Scarlet Letter narrative. It is in these moments that The Danger Ensemble truly shines.
Despite its depiction of centuries full of patriarchal dominance and violence, LET MEN TREMBLE fights back with malice and power. The cleverest instance of this is costuming, as each character transforms from drapey, black clothing into bright red — a strong symbol of blood shed, and battles to be won. When the character Pearl (Nicole Harvey) moves fluidly in a striking red bikini on a raised platform above the action of The Scarlet Letter below, she creates a lasting impression: we must all fight back. This continues until the final moment. The male characters are gagged and left naked in front of the women dressed in red, who sing a call-to-arms song — a promise to rage against the patriarchal machine.
LET MEN TREMBLE is arresting, loud and unrelenting. If you are looking to be empowered, to be galvanised and angry at years of patriarchal power, this is for you.
The Danger Ensemble’s production of Let Men Tremble runs from 14 – 25 August at Theatreworks.