The Town Hall Affair

The Wooster Group
The Wooster Group
Barbican Theatre

Maura Tierney, Scott Shepherd, Ari Fliakos and Greg Mehrten Credit: Prudence Upton
Erin Mullin and Kate Valk Credit: Prudence Upton
Ari Fliakos, Maura Tierney and Scott Shepherd Credit: Steve Gunther

The 1971 public debate in the packed New York Town Hall between the writer Norman Mailer and supporters of Women’s Liberation seemed wacky enough in the Hegedus and Pennebaker film of the event but that is nothing compared to the Wooster Group's even wackier stage version.

There are multiple Mailers. Two of them (Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos) sit at a platform table taking it in turns to speak Mailer’s words often in sync with the original Mailer in the film footage of the debate playing on a screen above their heads.

Mailer chairs the event, argues with the other speakers and constantly says things which irritate the women or, as he likes to call them, the “lady critics”. At one point, he offers to “take out my... dick and put it on the table.”

One Mailer (Scott Shepherd) starts prowling around the other till suddenly, in a rush of violence that echoes a fight Mailer had in his film Maidstone, he hits the sitting Mailer on the head with a hammer and wrestles him to the ground. Meanwhile, footage of Maidstone is shown on screen.

And that isn’t the end of these Mailers. They are soon back compèring the show wearing coloured paper crowns.

At times, the event seems dreamlike. A woman on stage begins singing the gentle song “Can't Help Falling In Love With You”. And visually, the antics of Jill Johnston (Kate Valk), a writer for The Village Voice, keeps grabbing our attention as she wanders behind the table of speakers striking odd poses.

In a rambling love declaration to lesbianism, she declares from the podium that “all women are lesbians except those who don’t know it naturally,” and “until all women are lesbians, there will be no true political revolution.”

As Mailer tries to get her to leave the podium, telling her to “play with the team or pick up your marbles and get lost,” she begins to roll on the stage floor sexually with two other women.

The contributions of the other speakers are easier to follow. Mailer introduces Germaine Greer, (Maura Tierney) the author of The Female Eunuch, quoting the Life magazine description of her as the “saucy feminist that even men like.”

She argues against the historical prominence of male artists in contrast to the invisibility of what women achieve.

Diana Trilling, played by a man (Greg Mehrten), insists on the existence of the female orgasm.

Even the original audience, courtesy of sound clips, gets to heckle.

Jill Johnston opens this play with the claim taken from a book she wrote later that the debate was “a disaster for women” but the social event of the season.

It certainly outraged polite society, but its witty, flamboyant high spirits are still exciting to watch, its confident participants reflecting a sense of the world shifting decisively in the direction of rights for women.

And the Wooster Group makes sure we don’t miss how much provocative fun the whole thing was.

The Town Hall Affair is part of the Barbican’s 2018 Season, The Art of Change, which explores how artists respond to, reflect and can potentially effect change in the social and political landscape.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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