Originally published by Exeunt Magazine.
VICTOR Why does she let him go?
SYNDA Because she loves him
And she forgives him
VICTOR That’s a fucking terrible story
SYNDA (laughing) I know
VICTOR I hate it
SYNDA It’s old
And you know… It’s love
Synda, a ballet dancer, is talking to Victor, a mask maker who’s become her stand in dance partner after the inconvenient suicide of his sort-of girlfriend Jeanine – a 31-year-old woman who had been learning ballet and also the possibility of lesbian desire from Synda. Synda is telling him the plot of the ballet they are learning: a girl meets a peasant boy and they fall in love. But the peasant boy is really the evil prince Bernado in disguise. He tries to rape her but she dies of fright in his arms and he realises he loves her and feels remorse. In the second act, she is reborn as an evil enchantress and lures men into her bed and murders them. One night, Bernado ends up in her bed and she decides to let him go because she loves him – in what Victor thinks is ‘a fucking terrible story’. Even he, a character that we have seen raping his girlfriend onstage earlier in the play, finds that ending lacking in poetic justice. In Clare Barron’s play, we never get to the vengeful second act.
In Theatre & Feminism, Kim Solga calls out ‘the well-made, three- or four-act play that all too often features a challenging female character at its core, a woman whose resistance to the feminine propriety dictated by her society makes her troublesome’. She observes, ‘A difficult woman’s journey is likely to end either in heartbreak for her or in a too-neat happy ending, or else it risks being criticized as not believable’, in a comment that is applicable not only to theatre but, as Dirty Crusty indicates – albeit obliquely, is the underlying structure of most fairy-tales, romcoms and ballets. In her review, Jessie Thompson calls Jay Miller’s production of Barron’s play ‘an anti-romcom with added beta-blockers and existential despair’. And, yes, there is a stylised meet-cute in which Victor and Jeanine inexplicably break into song under primary-coloured lights, insisting ‘We’re not going to fall in love’. But it’s only an anti-romcom in the sense that Netflix’s Isn’t It Romantic is an anti-romcom – outwardly satirising the genre’s tropes while damagingly reinforcing its core narrative on a fundamental structural level.
Because Jeanine is set up as a classic ‘difficult woman’. In the opening, the stage is bare except for a white cardboard house. A recording of a conversation at a party plays, a group of women quizzing Jeanine about how often she wears her underwear before washing it. ‘Twice’, she ventures tentatively, and they fall on her like a pack of personal hygiene-policing wolves about how gross that is. One woman counsels her, ‘You have to stop/ making excuses and allow the change you/ want to see in your life to happen’. Because of course the mess of Jeanine’s room is a metaphor for the generalised dysfunction of her life. If this were a classic romcom, Jeanine would – via falling in love with a man and with his help – clean up and become properly integrated into society as a productive citizen in a heterosexual relationship. Or, via a second plot strand, intercut with the first, Jeanine would be motivated to turn her life around through learning ballet from Synda; maybe they’d even start a romantic relationship. Neither of these things happen. Jeanine and Victor don’t fall in love (or rather, they have a lot of sex but Victor declares that he wants to keep things ‘casual’). Synda tells Jeanine that she’s not good enough to be a ballet dancer. The women do not act upon the sexual chemistry between the two of them. Indeed, the ending of the play seems to suggest that Synda, who has at no point in the play expressed any desire towards men, might be getting together with Victor. Girl meets boy. He rapes her. She commits suicide. A new heterosexual relationship blossoms. Order is restored.
Some alternative endings to Dirty Crusty
- Jeanine comes back to life and murders Victor at the ballet show. Girls in tutus help tear him apart, learning the power of female rage.
- Jeanine and Synda start a relationship and they have a hugely fulfilling sex life with an adventurous repertoire.
- Jeanine becomes a ballerina. Even if she’s not perfect, she has a great time.
- Jeanine does not clean her room. She cultivates the mould and mess as a dirty protest against the patriarchy.
Dirty Crusty by Clare Barron is a mess. Not in a good “oh look the form reflects the themes” way, but in a “this play would have really benefitted from a dramaturg and a drastic rewrite” kind of way. A dramaturg could have encouraged Barron and Miller to think about the political implications of this narrative being put out into the world in this way. That is not to say that the writing is ‘bad’. Barron demonstrates her ear for naturalistic dialogue and there are a number of entertainingly theatrical moments, such as Jeanine and Synda translating the intention behind each of their ballet steps into narrative. Yet I find it hugely frustrating that an outwardly experimental form, one which uses metatheatricality to acknowledge the limiting potential of patriarchal narrative structures, is concealing a conventional narrative structure that is so politically retrogressive.
Miller’s production is polished, in the uneasy juxtaposition of soft-toned, colourful lighting, theatrical playfulness and traumatic violence that seems to have become his trademark. The performances of the cast give flesh to characters that lack interiority in the writing. Akiya Henry captures Jeanine’s lack of direction, pulled this way and that by what other people want. Abiona Omonua imparts grace and self-possession to Synda. Dougie McMeekin manages to make Victor almost likeable. The ballet recital that concludes the show, complete with children in animal masks, is gawky, cute, and a political anaesthetic (see Ava Wong Davies’ blog for her analysis). Miller’s direction gives a veneer of shine to a structurally flawed play – the theatrical equivalent of shoving everything into the wardrobe as your mum is coming upstairs to inspect your room.
Dirty Crusty is on at the Yard Theatre till 30th November. More info here.