Review: Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties (Southwark Playhouse)

Jen Silverman’s play about identity politics arrives in the UK for the first time

You know that legendary Two Ronnies class sketch? "I look up to him… but I look down on him…" Well, Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage could just be its furious, fourth-wave feminist little sister. For 90 rambunctious, if scattershot, minutes, this performance-artsy play rampages through a tangle of intersectional identity politics in a bid to reshape what we talk about when we talk about 'women'.

Silverman shows us a spectrum of sisterhood – the Betties, One through Five, form a sliding scale of female privilege. Betty One’s at the top – your classic bottle-blonde Upper East Side rich bitch – and Betty Five’s at the bottom; a black, masc, genderqueer, kickboxing ex-con. Betties Two, Three and Four are everything in between – from Lucy McCormick‘s bimboish Spawn of Barbie princess to Johnnie Fiori’s implacable working-class queer woman who just wants to fix up her truck. They’re like a colour chart of class and conformity.

Collective Rage, essentially, muddles them up like a martini. Though it starts out stratified – the posh Betties letting off marital steam over a dainty dinner party, while the more street, less straight Betties trade sex stories – Silverman slams all five into each other. Beatriz Romilly’s Betty Three, a libidinous Latino bisexual with a thick Bronx accent, has a cultural awakening and decides to direct them all in a play: her own Bettified version of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Simply by sitting such diversity on one stage, Silverman slams her first point home. As the Sex and the City theme skips and starts overhead, it’s startlingly apparent how slimline our stock image of female identity has become – defined by and limited to well-spoken, well-off, well-dressed white women.

For Silverman, the theatre – or 'the-a-tre' as the Betties airily insist – can shake that up. It allows each of the Betties to try on something new – a new version of themselves. If Betties One and Five discover a shared rage and a mutual attraction, become more powerful together than they are alone, Betty Three develops into a diva-ish dictator, who swaps her Dunkin' Donuts coffee for a complex skinny-mini-something-achino. She loses sight of herself and her sort.

In that, Collective Rage shows a re-ordering of power based on, not class, but cultural capital. It’s striking who gets left out: the unimpressed, uninterested working class woman who sees through bullshit in a shot, and the airhead young woman, who’s all artifice and construction. As Betty Two, McCormick, always a dynamite dangerous presence, becomes entranced by the reflection of her own vagina – the only real womanly thing about her.

Silverman’s play isn’t always in control, but it has the uncontained electricity of ball lightning as it sparks this way and that. Its jokes often fall flat, but Charlie Parham’s production finds its fizz in five full-on performances, each relishing a caricaturish cliché. Sara Stewart makes hay with her snooty Betty One, unleashing a tsumani of fury about her lavish but lifeless lifestyle, while Genesis Lynea is superb as her sanguine, but sceptical opposite number, Betty Five. Trouble is, being so theatre-centric, Collective Rage borders on an in-joke and that edge of exclusivity, no matter how self-aware Silverman is of it, undermines the show’s message of open-armed diversity. Like Betty Two, it very nearly gets lost up its own gusset.

Collective Rage runs at Southwark Playhouse until 17 February.