Printable CopyCOCKROACH
Bakehouse Theatre
Until 09 Mar 2019

Review by Sarah Westgarth

Presented at the 2019 Adelaide Fringe Festival

‘I’ve said it before and say it again; if I was a woman I’d be angry all of the time.’ This was a tweet written by American comedian Andy Richter on January 5 of this year. And it’s true there is plenty to be angry about. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1 and 6 women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a cohabiting partner since age 15. 69 women were murdered in 2018. So far, 2019’s toll is already up to 12. As the fourth-wave of feminism continues to grow, more stories of sexual assault and abuse dominate headlines—often surrounding well-known men in the media, politics, and other positions of power—mention the various other ways and means women are oppressed and abused across the globe. There is plenty to be angry about. Yet anger is often an emotion activists are counselled to avoid, less you are viewed as hysterical or falling into the stereotype of the raging feminist. We are advised to be reasonable and calm in our approach in order to have the broadest appeal.

‘Cockroach’ knows this, understands this, and thoroughly rejects it, letting anger dominate the stage in its unapologetic look at the prevalence of violence and sexual assault against women. Written and directed by Melita Rowston, and performed by Leah Donovan, ‘Cockroach’ does not endeavour to be subtle in its approach. It has no interest in sneaking its overtly feminist message in, or controlling its emotion so it’s more palatable. Instead, the show is raw, honest, and uncompromising. It wastes no time in debating the merits or validity of feminist issues, nor does it flinch away from facts to avoid being too confronting. It will not be to everyone’s taste—and perhaps confirm some of the stereotypical views one may have about one-woman shows—but this messy, rough exploration of the reality women live with every day is a deeply cathartic experience. It’s a graphic vivisection of the way our culture is embedded with gendered violence.

The show tells the story of C, who wakes up one morning only to find she has transformed into a verminous creature. While many are disgusted by the cockroach, C understands that it is a survivor. Using her new form, C takes on a superhero persona, and goes on the hunt to dish out suitably ironic punishments to men who engage in abuse and assault. None of the men are given names, identified with labels such as “the night club owner’s son”, “the actor”, or “the priest.” In the audience, there is a murmur of recognition at each scenario. We know the stories she is telling. Even without the details, there is an innate understanding of what is being portrayed. This is the world we live in. And it feels freeing to have it expressed with such unadulterated, vengeful passion.

The women in the story, meanwhile, are given names from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem dating back to 8 A.D. Donovan gives us a crash course in this so-called ‘cautionary tale’, a 12,000-line saga that repeatedly depicts the rape and mutilation of women. The foundation in such an ancient text speaks to the intellectual heart of the show, without ever becoming inaccessible.

C’s mission of vigilante justice is interspersed with segments reminiscent of spoken word poetry, highlighting the hypocrisy and injustice of the epidemic of violence against women. She spouts statistics, mock defences, and occasionally bursts into song, accompanied by Benito Di Fonzo. The musical numbers occasionally feel awkward, yet somehow completely necessary; there is a vulnerability that Donovan exposes when she sings alone onstage, and the music—as music often does—explores the emotional depth of the character when dialogue will no longer suffice.

While the subject matter is serious, and rage is the emotional core, ‘Cockroach’ is self-aware enough to also be funny. It knows exactly how it may come across, how it fits in with other feminist narratives, and it’s this self-awareness that allows it to wink at itself without undermining the message. It is also unsurprising that most of the knowing laughs came from the women in the audience.

Donovan’s performance is intoxicating, and she manages to be frightening without ever being alienating. She commands the room, controlling the variance in tone with a light touch and crafted control. She puts her voice and body all on the line for the sake of maximum impact; Rowston’s words are in the perfect hands.

‘Cockroach’ is funny without being flippant, and serious without being maudlin. It will undoubtedly invoke conflicting responses from audiences (in the opening Donovan states she will be unapologetically painting with a broad brush, and a man behind me groaned “oh no”) but it’s a show that feels necessary, and the urgency it presents itself with is apt.

We have plenty to be angry about.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)