5 Min Read

Transforming an Ancient Tale for the 21st Century: Monstrous Woman

"We literally can't win so let's f$ck some stuff up"

Greek myths are often cited as reflections of society, politics and the human condition.  Although in many ways we can still relate to these stories, a lot of them are calling out for a fresh and updated perspective. tempest theatre has answered this call, with their latest production Monstrous Woman; a feminist adaption of the myth of Phaedra. 

“Phaedra was the wife of King Theseus, an older woman with an all-consuming lust for her stepson Hippolytus. Monstrous Woman is a highly visual, metaphorical allegory investigating the intersections between repressed desire and the older woman. The play rewrites the myth of the damaging effects of the sexual transgressions of mothers and the tides of fate.”

Ahead of the show’s opening at Subiaco Arts Centre in November, I sent writer and director Susie Conte a series of questions, to get a taste of what’s in store.

Susie Conte for Monstrous Woman by Susie Conte.

Monstrous Woman is an adaption of the myth of Phaedra, what changes can we expect to see to this story?

I wanted to centre Phaedra in the myth and analyse the aspect of shame which is at the heart of the play. I am not interested in the male narrative and I wanted to unpack the thread of Phaedra’s life, while also making commentary on how society sees women and judges them at every stage of their life. We literally can’t win so let’s f$ck some stuff up (pardon the rudeness). 

What was it about the story of Phaedra which inspired you to reimagine it?

I was really interested in how older women are portrayed and shamed for their wants and needs. And I was outraged at the constant classical references to how women must die if they transgress, either through murder or suicide. What if she didn’t die? What if shame was not an issue for her? What if women weren’t pigeonholed by their age or sex or desires?

Do you feel the issue of society shaming women for their sexuality has progressed at all in recent years or has it remained stagnant? 

I can’t help feeling the issue is still front and centre – women of a certain age are often invisible, except if they do things we don’t think they should. Madonna with a 27-year-old boyfriend, the cougar who seems desperate, women scared of getting older and becoming “irrelevant”, Julia Gillard being childless, Demi Moore, Tina Turner, Bo Derek – Harry Styles dating an older women – why on earth would he? These tropes are tired and, as I age, I find the constant judgement exhausting. There is a small wind blowing that social media is allowing women to call sexism and ageism out in real time, but time will have to tell if this signals a genuine sea change in how 

Monstrous Woman in rehearsal by Joel Mews

You have five feminist performers in the show, what can you tell me about this team and how it formed?

I wanted to work with performers who could engage with the work on a visceral level. My team is all fierce and feminist, and open to being part of a political piece. They are endlessly creative and supportive. I am very lucky to be surrounded by these great performers. We had worked together on Monica: A Public Apology earlier this year, another Tempest show about shame and shaming women for their sexuality, so Monstrous Woman felt like a natural extension of that work. 

Can you tell me about what it means to make a highly visceral piece of theatre?

One of the ways to make feminist theatre is with highly visual imagery, and I want to lean into classical imagery and then blow it apart. Women in the classical world are often depicted as demure statues or passive spectators and I want to play with the concept of the monstrous and the grotesque. Women acting outside the “natural order”, which makes people uncomfortable. My work is political and I want to start a conversation around how we look at ageing bodies and feelings.

Susie Conte for Monstrous Woman by Susie Conte.

Who should see this show and what would you like them to take away from the piece?

I tend to make work for women, non-binary folks and feminists, but any one who enjoys theatre which will provoke a discussion. We should be talking about these issues and one way of working through the morass of conflicting opinions is through art. I hope they take away of sense of power to continue the conversation in their own communities. 

Monstrous Woman will run 3-6 November 2021 at Subiaco Arts Centre.