SHIT, by Patricia Cornelius

A Dee & Cornelius/Milke Production. Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, July 20

Patricia Cornelius gets right to the point, as the titles of recent plays attest. Savages (2013) is the one about men off the leash, and how a toxic mix of testosterone, grievances real and perceived, booze and group dynamics plays out on a cruise ship. Not well, as you might imagine. In SLUT (2008), a young girl is brutally labelled and shamed; in SHIT (2015), three women who have been treated as such pretty much from birth both fight their destiny and fulfil it.

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Nicci Wilks, Peta Brady and Sarah Ward in SHIT

Cornelius is, obviously, a provocateur. Note the capital letters. Note the bolshie challenge to an audience member who might want to ring up the box office for a ticket or tell a friend the name of the play they’re about to see. Not to mention the challenge to mainstream theatre companies, who by and large have decided to duck it.  You don’t see Cornelius on our big stages even though, as absolutely everyone points out, she has a mantelpiece groaning under the weight of prestigious awards.

There’s no mystery really. Cornelius is a superb playwright whose chief objective is to disrupt while Australian mainstream theatre is – to co-opt a term with a lot of currency these days – a safe space for middle-class audiences. Not a lot of horse-frightening goes on at companies with large overheads that depend hugely on box office and private sponsorship.

Cornelius wants to scare the shit out of you. She certainly did with Savages, which I saw at a schools performance with a full house of young men from a private secondary college. They were practically shell-shocked from what I could tell – in complete silence when not gasping involuntarily.

SHIT is equally confronting. Well, confronting for the kinds of people who usually go to the theatre and who usually don’t meet the likes of Billy (Nicci Wilks), Bobby (Sarah Ward) and Sam (Peta Brady), women with masculine names to go with their battle-hardened exteriors. The products of neglect and abuse, they’ve done whatever it takes to claim some place in the world. Their resilience is admirable in theory but you’d swap train carriages or cross the road to get away from them. These women are trouble and the damage is too extreme to fix.

Sam was only four and placed with a family where she understood without question that she would never really belong. What she did about it made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pugnacious Billy can never forget hearing someone say she had been forsaken, the temerity of which makes her shake with rage. Bobby recalls abundant physical contact that, unusually, appears to have been benign, or something approaching it. Kindness is a rare commodity.

Billy, Bobby and Sam are used to the ground constantly shifting under them so it’s no surprise they are mercurial women with hair-trigger tempers. Like poorly trained dogs they might lick you one minute and bite the next. Cornelius’s writing effortlessly straddles the divide. There is so much to like about these sharp, funny, incredibly vivid people but they are also untameable and therefore dangerous. And loud. God, are they loud. Sweary too, of course. “Fuck” and “cunt” get a heavy-duty workout.

Susie Dee’s highly physical production matches the restlessness of the characters and Cornelius’s shifts in place and time. Even when they are apparently still you can feel the jumpy energy coursing through Billy, Bobby and Sam. Marg Horwell’s set is a bleak wall with three openings, emblematic of the women’s cheerless past and descriptive of their inevitable future.

Wilks, Ward and Brady, who have been with the production since its earliest days, are all tremendous. Wilks is like a bantamweight boxer, all mouth, aggression, lean muscle and attitude; Ward’s fascinating Bobby is more complicated and more unknowable. Brady’s Sam hasn’t yet had all the longing and hope knocked out of her but it won’t be long before that’s sorted.

All this in just 60 uncompromising minutes. Cornelius doesn’t moralise, philosophise, offer solutions or platitudes, certainly doesn’t offer comfort and above all doesn’t judge. She just shows. We all should look.

Postscript: Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEON independent theatre project first brought SHIT to mainstream attention, and for this it deserves much thanks. And now Cornelius is in the first cohort of Australian playwrights commissioned to write for MTC’s visionary Next Stage program, announced last month. Perhaps mainstage theatre is about to get a bit less safe.

SHIT ends at the Seymour Centre on July 29. Darwin Festival, August 22, 25, 26 and 27.