Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom is not a cheerful play. With themes that encompass gender inequality, poverty, and the lack of freedom of women in the 18th century, and hinging on a literal witch hunt, Vinegar Tom is challenging content for the average theatre-goer.
COUP: Canberra’s staging of the play is triumphant, however, in not just communicating the gravity of women’s subjugation to the audience, but offering a nuanced view of the individual characters that includes humour and empathy.
Showing at Gorman Arts Centre as part of the Ralph Indie season, Vinegar Tom features some of Canberra’s best talent including the performers, musicians, director and staging, sound and costume design. The staging in particular is highly impressive. The ability of the play to transport the audience from a field by a river, to a dingy barn, to ringside seats at a witch hanging without changing the props or stage design between scenes is astounding.
It’s difficult to choose a single performance to highlight from the cast, as each actor embodies their character incredibly well. Barb barnett (intentionally uncapitalised) does deserve a special mention, though, for seamlessly transitioning from one of the most empathetic characters as Ellen ‘the cunning woman’ to one of the most despised characters as ‘Goody’, the witch-catcher’s sidekick, without causing any disconnect for the audience.
Churchill’s script includes several songs, which have generally been interpreted by theatre companies in the vein of traditional musical theatre. COUP: Canberra have taken a more experimental direction, and tasked several musicians and bands with interpreting the lyrics individually, resulting in a series of live performances that move the energy of the play through sound in a way that I haven’t experienced before. What is particularly impressive is how the diversity of the music – which moves from electronic to shoegaze, to experimental, to soulful – doesn’t jar the audience, but instead brings the play more together and takes listeners on the emotional journeys experienced by the characters.
Though the intermission felt like it came too late in the play, it’s difficult to find anything of substance to critique in Vinegar Tom. If this is what we can expect from COUP: Canberra going forward, I’m eagerly anticipating their next project!
Vinegar Tom will continue to run at Gorman Arts Centre until Sunday 4 December. Tickets and more info are available on the Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre website.
Image: Thorson Photography