Writer: Colleen Murphy
Director: Helen Donnelly
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
The plays of Colleen Murphy have become something of a staple of the Finborough’s programming over the last few years, resulting in the playwright’s tenure as Canadian Writer-in-Residence at the theatre in 2011-12. The last work by Murphy to be staged at the Finborough (albeit all-too-briefly) was Armstrong’s War in the summer of 2013. This was an intimate and incisive two-hander about a Canadian Girl Guide assigned to read to a soldier hospitalised following an injury incurred in the Afghanistan War. Ignited by captivating performances from Jessica Barden and Mark Quartley, Jennifer Bakst’s frills-free workshop production was simply beautiful, and delicately lit up every nuance of the drama to create a deeply humane and poignant duet.
Though retaining something of that play’s intimacy, Murphy’s latest work, Pig Girl, is a very different proposition indeed to the emotionally complex but comparatively consoling Armstrong’s War. Pig Girl is a bruising, intense and thoroughly disquieting work that proved deeply divisive upon its world premiere at Theatre Network in Edmonton, Alberta in 2013, where, as well as praise from some commentators (the play won the Carol Bolt Award), the piece found itself taken to task for everything from exploitative violence to appropriation of voice.
Part of the controversy that Pig Girl stirred up in Canada was due to its inspiration in real events: namely, the murder by a man named Robert Pickton of a large number of mostly First Nations women in British Columbia. While Murphy has stressed that the play is “a work of imagination,” its basis in the Pickton case isn’t hard to see. Still, the harsh denunciations that Pig Girl received from some quarters in Canada seem misguided. For, in Helen Donnelly’s gripping production at least, the play looks nothing less than a deeply feminist, profoundly political work, whose critique of the apathy of the authorities in dealing with the disappearances of girls from marginalized groups communicates clearly and urgently.
The play is constructed, essentially, as two interwoven two-handers. Murphy juxtaposes the torment of a woman held in a barn by a volatile captor with the ordeal experienced by the woman’s sister, as she attempts to convince a police officer to begin the investigation of her missing sibling. These two separate male/female encounters posit a parallel between the horrific crimes occurring in the barn and the wider cultural abuses of a society that seems indifferent to the fate of drug-addicted sex workers, especially those from non-white backgrounds.
Alert to the ever-shifting rhythms of Murphy’s language – which is sometimes beautiful and poetic, at others intensely ugly and visceral, but always rich in evocative detail – Donnelly’s production doesn’t flinch from the play’s discomforting elements. In the tiny confines of the Finborough, the play’s intensity level is high to say the least, enhanced further by a superb sound design by Fred Riding (snorting pig noises and the sounds of lashing rain provide the least welcoming of introductions even before the production begins) and Nic Farman’s crepuscular lighting.
The absence of names for the characters – identified simply as Dying Woman, Sister, Killer and Police Officer – immediately announces their status as archetypes. But the purpose of the piece is to go beyond such simplistic formulations and to reveal instead the particular histories of these individuals. Just occasionally, the writing resorts to cliché: I could have lived without the hackneyed revelation of the Killer’s own background of abuse which pins his pathology on (wouldn’t you know) a monstrous mother, even if this perspective does get nuanced by another character later in the play.
But, for the most part, the character dynamics are fascinatingly and sometimes surprisingly developed, and Donnelly gets committed, powerful performances from her first-rate cast, with Kirsten Foster as the fierce woman fighting for her life, Damien Lyne as her insidious tormentor, Joseph Rye as the policeman who ends up as haunted by the case as the victims’ families are, and Olivia Darnley, radiant with conviction and concern as the sister battling the apathy of the system in her attempt to discover her sibling’s fate.
It’s not a show to dispense much in the way of New Year cheer, then. But Pig Girl is a potent, provocative play, one that’s turned, by Donnelly’s fine production, into a requiem of sorts.
Runs until 16th February