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The Town Hall Affair review at Barbican Theatre, London – ‘a gripping theatrical experiment’

The Wooster Group's The Town Hall Affair at Barbican Theatre, London
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In her book Lesbian Nation, Jill Johnston explained her conflict at taking part in a now infamous debate about feminism in 1971. Doing so, she felt, would suggest that “women’s liberation is a debatable issue”.

That’s the question this piece by legendary New York performance collective the Wooster Group is sort of asking. Taking that debate – which featured Germaine Greer in her relevant days and was, bizarrely, chaired by Norman Mailer – as well as the documentary Town Bloody Hall that captured it, the group shows up the progressions and regressions of the fight for gender equality.

Unlike the documentary, this production privileges Johnston and her refusal to adhere to Mailer’s condescending rules. The group uses its signature style of taking existing footage and having actors, fed by earpieces, precisely imitate what’s happening on screen.

But Kate Valk as Johnston is the only one in full costume while the others are in varying degrees of get-up. She is the focal point, and everything else seems like half-formed clouds of memory around her.

Any commentary about the debate is subtle, but Mailer comes off particularly badly. By imitating him, Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos demean him and his sneering, patronising tone.

The only other deviation from straight re-enactment is the intercutting of footage from one of Mailer’s experimental films, Maidstone. In an infamous scene he and Rip Torn get into an actual fight, Torn hits Mailer on the head with a hammer and Mailer bites part of his ear off. While Shepherd and Fliakos fight with fists at the back of the stage, Greer and Trilling fight with words up front.

It’s a strange piece. It feels more like a theatrical exercise than a piece intended to make a point. But it’s completely gripping, too.

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Strange, but gripping piece by legendary experimental theatre makers The Wooster Group