‘26 Cats Destroy the Patriarchy’ is more than a contemporary historical or socio-political drama, it is an intergenerational homage to feminism and family, in particular to women raising women. Ellen Anderson reflects on the show’s recent premiere season at BATS theatre as part of the NZ Fringe Festival.
Not only does each character represent their generation within a modern matriarchy, but also the different feminist waves. First wave feminism is represented in the character of Joan – played by Jan Bolwell, second wave feminism in Kate (Shirley Domb) and intersectional feminism in Emma (Celia Macdonald). These waves both connect and divide them. Writer Henrietta Bollinger navigates the currents of time between these waves with wit and realism. She has allowed each character to establish a sense of what it is to be a woman of a certain social, political and ideological era within New Zealand’s current climate.
I have often wondered where to find a feminist space for honouring the women that came before while challenging what, to an intersectional feminist, can feel divisive and problematic. This play tends to those paradoxes, as Kate’s second wave feminist convictions are on display; for the worse when she scoffs at a feminist bake sale organised by Emma’s friend (or unrequited crush) chiding that it’s about time “women got out of the kitchen”; and then for the better when she vents about her role in the political arena: “they think I’m here for the women’s issues, but they’re all women’s issues”.
As the play progressed it became clear that there were several story arcs that seemed evasive and unresolved. Emma’s adoration of her friend Juliet seems to linger in a stasis between friendship and something more. I wished this could have been alluded to with greater conviction as I felt it was incongruous with Bollinger’s commitment to depicting diversity.
Throughout the play Kate grappled with her own expectations and the societal pressures of motherhood and what she believes to be the absence of a secure mother-daughter attachment between her and Emma. This plot line was heavily laden with direct audience address and stream of consciousness. I’m unsure if this was scripted by Bollinger or directed by Zoe Higgins but the play loses momentum as these narrative devices lack subtlety. It undermines Bollinger’s earlier dialogue of cleverly layered banter between grandmother and granddaughter.
As a character Joan remains largely peripheral. I wanted to hear more about Joan’s life outside of “Nan” or “Mum”. I couldn’t help but conclude that like is often seen in the depiction of elderly women, herstory has been forgotten. Jan Bolwell helped to breathe life into her character so that we get snippets of a wily and adventurous spirit, possibly more than the script afforded her.
All in all, ‘26 Cats Destroy the Patriarchy’ was gutsy in its content and can be applauded for reminding us that the personal is indeed political. It is an honest and relatable portrayal that bridges the generation gap with empathy and understanding. Though this play pivots and climaxes around Kate’s political journey, it is clear that she wouldn’t be there had Joan not paved the way for her by protesting social justice issues of the past or if Emma hadn’t challenged her with a progressive radicalism that so often comes with idealistic youth.
- Ellen Anderson.
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