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Beauty Myth-Busting in MONUMENT at Red Stitch

Developed through the INK playwright program and now in its world premiere season at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre in St Kilda, Monument documents the strictly 90-minute appointment between PM Edith (Sarah Sutherland) and make-up artist Rosie (Julia Hanna) in real-time as they prepare for Edith’s acceptance speech, her first public appearance as leader of the country.

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In 1991, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth exposed the beauty industry’s disturbing strangle-hold on Western women otherwise “liberated” in terms of working rights, voting rights and educational opportunities. A decade later in an updated introduction, Wolf escalated the relation between women’s power and the pressure to meet standards of appearance from passive co-existence to negatively correlated: “The stronger women were becoming politically, the heavier the ideals of beauty would bear down on them, mostly in order to distract their energy and undermine their progress.” Emily Sheehan’s Monument scrambles, reassembles and dissembles–and over again–the assumptions of Wolf’s dynamic of power, beauty and liberation in the undulating dialogue between a newly elected Prime Minister and a make-up artist, pulled from her day-job at David Jones on recommendation after the PM’s team is grounded by fog in Melbourne. 

Developed through the INK playwright program and now in its world premiere season at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre in St Kilda, Monument documents the strictly 90-minute appointment between PM Edith (Sarah Sutherland) and make-up artist Rosie (Julia Hanna) in real-time as they prepare for Edith’s acceptance speech, her first public appearance as leader of the country. Lush, peach-pink curtains frame a round pedestal stage that the actresses must circumnavigate to reach the wings. Although the Red Stitch seating bank juts steeply back on a single plane, this staging choice creates an arena-like atmosphere that “exhibits” the women’s intimate encounter. The monochrome set is bright but modest compared to the fuchsia hound’s-tooth Channel dress that peaks out on the hangar; the hotel room might feel like home for Mature Barbie. However, the styles of neither Edith nor Rosie match their elegant and feminine surroundings–an ironic disjunction that dispels any sense of the Ideal from either character,  establishing the naturalist imperative of the script in production despite its immediate flamboyance.

Sheehan’s intergenerational narrative resists making archetypes of Edith and Rosie, drawing differences in age, class, taste and attitudes into their oscillating dynamic. They are both professionals; they are both “modern women”. Edith is the youngest woman ever elected as Prime Minister. She likely hails from the mid-to-late years of the elusive or forgotten Generation X. Rosie is younger than a Millennial but old enough to have finished school and shifted around in her career a bit. An early Gen Z, probably. While Rosie’s casual attitude registers as naïve on the most important day of Edith’s important life, her conversational adaptability–finessed by years of customer service in the beauty industry–unwraps the “real details” of Edith’s person, including her politico-professional feminist hypocrisies. Even as Edith encourages Rosie to put career opportunities ahead of commitments to her boyfriend, she hides the inauthenticity of her own marriage. The meaning of ‘keeping up appearances’ widens as Rosie preps Edith like one of her “brides”, co-conspirators in the goal to “meet expectations”. The effortless and natural look that Rosie aims for encapsulates the fundamental irony that yokes contemporary beauty and politics: fashion and make-up are non-essential, but appearances are everything.

Monument’s premise of a high-stakes, intimate make-up appointment merely provides the scaffolding for a critical discourse on contemporary Australian politics. The slow unveiling of Edith’s calculated nepotistic rise up the political ladder–her blatant use of the word “succession” invoking the popular drama series based on the Murdoch family empire–constructs a grim paradigm of “democratic” power, yet Sutherland’s portrayal avoids alienating Edith from the audience. The physical vulnerability Edith begins with is exchanged for emotional vulnerability as she is made-up, sustaining a baseline of intimacy throughout the show. Hanna’s Rosie unifies youthful guilelessness with sharp wit, crafting a compelling voice to speak truth to power. Beauty-world juggernaut combines with anecdotes of minimum-wage reality in a lucid commentary that pierces Edith upper-class political operative haze.

Still, Sheehan’s text returns consistently to equilibrium as the characters find new common ground each time it slips away. Even the pinnacle of dramatic tension–which sees the power dynamic tremble as Rosie adopts Edith’s rhetoric of power–is weakly resolved by an appeal to Rosie’s working integrity. Though undeniably uplifting, Monument’s ending perhaps abstains from fulfilling its critical potential. Nonetheless, three decades on from Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, Monument offers an original and pertinent elucidation of the fraught relation between the politics of beauty and the beauty of politics. 

Monument is showing at Red Stitch in St Kilda until the 3rd of September.

 

CAST & CREATIVES

Writer Emily Sheehan
Director Ella Caldwell
Set & Costume Design Sophie Woodward
Lighting Design Amelia Lever-Davidson
Sound Design & Composition Danni Esposito
Assistant Director Ibrahim Halaçoglu
Makeup Advisor Harriet O’Donnell
Stage Manager Rain Iyahen
Assistant Stage Manager Eliza Stone
Design Intern Filipe Filihia

 

Cast
Julia Hanna as Rosie
Sarah Sutherland as Edith

 
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