I do not particularly enjoy Williamson. I don’t think it is productive or appropriate now to “explore” cis-heteromasculinity as it affects the lives of cis men—it has been done, there are more pressing issues to explore. That said, I believe there can be value in restaging highly contextual works and demonstrating their continued relevance—I just don’t think it is done well here.
The Removalists is a piece that, though dated, still manages relevance, as everything that happens in it still happens now. Domestic abuse is still a frighteningly common and despicably under-exposed issue, police brutality still tarnishes our justice system, and patriarchy is still the worst thing ever. But this production managed to make it feel endlessly archaic. “Look”, it seemed to say, “look at this thing that doesn’t happen anymore. Isn’t it funny that men used to be like this?”
Robert Boddington’s production is staged interestingly. The first 35 to 40 minutes occur on a smaller stage in what is usually the backstage area of the Cellar. This claustrophobic space would have been fantastically compelling as the office of Sergeant Simmonds had the actors in the scene been able to maintain tension throughout the too-slow opening. The second stage is equally cramped for the audience, with the bonus of directly aligned seating which leaves you with a great view of the person sitting in front of you. That said, the space is impressively constructed as a naturalistic and immersive home space, leaving the audience feeling as if they too occupy this world.
Performances are, in many places, mediocre. Several actors fall down trying to play characters far older or more malicious than they are, and thus losing much of their complexity of emotion. The entrance of Hannah Cox as Kate is a breath of fresh air and her performance remains compelling and moving throughout. Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s performance in the physically demanding role of the abuser-become-abused Kenny is in moments disturbing and highly affective and deserves commendation.
This production takes a lacklustre approach to many of its core issues. Despite the heavy focus on domestic violence, the nuance in physically and emotionally abusive situations is never fully realised between Fiona (Sophie Armbrister) and Kenny (Saro Lusty-Cavallari). Abuse and trauma are fraught and complicated, and unless a creative team is committed to realising their effects honestly, the result is insulting for anyone who has ever experienced them. What’s more, the play’s more violent scenes were bookended—even punctuated by—cheap gags. While the performance of Reuben Ward as the single-minded removalist Rob is, in isolation, hilarious and well done, seeing humour shoe-horned into moments that should have been horrific was, rather than poignant, galling. I didn’t want to be laughing, and I had the impression of an audience surprised, maybe relieved, to find themselves doing so. It is hard, at points, to determine whether the show itself or the characters were being flippant, but this flippancy is nonetheless without real effect.
As someone who is terrified by heteromasculinity at the best of times—in tutorials, on the train, on the street—I never once felt the horror of that toxicity fully articulated in The Removalists. I saw a washed out and weak version of what toxic masculinity can do, a version that made vague attempts to critique or deconstruct, but could never manage it as the stakes were ridiculously low. As much as the violence of the play was viscerally upsetting, it was meaningless without a clear message.
To create spectacle from deeply troubling issues like those central to The Removalists requires you to be saying something, meaning something. If you come after patriarchy, if you come after domestic violence, you commit and do it really, really well. Anything else is farcical, and anything else does nothing to fix the problem.
Photo credit: Julia Robertson