Review: How to Defend Yourself

Share your location with friends. Always cover your drink. Walk home with your keys in your hands. Take self-defence classes.

This is what young women are told as they leave high school and arrive at university. At 18 years old, with the world at their feet, they are taught to fear and to be vigilant.

In Liliana Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself, a group of American college girls try to do everything right. In the wake of the brutal sexual assault of a sorority girl at a frat party, the girls form a class to teach themselves how to talk about consent, how to communicate boundaries, and—when all else fails—how to defend themselves.

These self-defence classes, which are attended by two frat boys ‘feminists’ for some male support, make up the majority of Padilla’s 95-minute play. As the university community reels with shock, these classes become a safe space for students, to share their stories of sex and dating—the thrilling, the disappointing, and the scary. In between practising their boxing moves, the group also voices their fears about being young people in the 2020s trying to navigate hook-up culture in the era of tinder and social media.

Photography Credit: Philip Erbacher

This production, directed by Claudia Barrie, produced by Outhouse Theatre Co and presented by the Old Fitz, marks the Australian Premiere of How to Defend Yourself.

Padilla’s script is urgent and contemporary, although a little underdeveloped. However, Barrie and her team have taken the writing as it is, and created an impressive, powerful production that demands to be heard. Barrie has assembled a uniformly strong ensemble with some of Sydney’s best up-and-coming acting talent. The principal cast, who will perform most nights, consist of Georgia Anderson, Madeline Marie Dona, Brittany Santariga, Jessica Spies, Jessica Paterson, Michael Cameron and Saro Lepejian. The play is highly physical, and the young performers move with energy and intensity around Soham Apte’s simple but elegant set, which is designed as a gym studio. Samantha Cheng’s sound composition and design riffs on traditional ‘girl-power’ anthems as the young women train beneath Saint Clair’s colourful lighting.

Padilla’s script captures the realistic way young people in groups talk, with multiple conversations often happening on stage at once. This style has the potential to be overwhelming for audiences, but Barrie controls the ensemble well so that key dialogue isn’t lost, despite lively physicality or overlapping conversations.

Photography Credit: Philip Erbacher

Padilla’s writing is the most compelling thing about the play, but also the most disappointing. The seven characters each hold unique and interesting perspectives on sex and dating, and Padilla is determined to give them all equal importance and stage time. However, there simply isn’t room in a 95-minute script to dig deep into every topic Padilla wants to discuss, despite the actors’ best efforts.

Nikki (Paterson) is shaken by a recent sexual experience that she can’t really remember and is struggling to feel safe in her own body. A recent breakup has left Eggo (Lepejian) insecure about his masculinity and resentful towards women. Brandi (Santariga) and Mojdeh (Marie Dona) are both sexually inexperienced and feeling anxious at the pressure placed on young women to please in the bedroom. Kara (Spies) claims to feel “empowered” by violent sex, but how much is that learned behaviour from porn, and how much is what she really wants?

These are all pressing and urgent topics that deserve to be discussed in depth. But when they’re crammed into a 95-minute script, what results is a promising but shallow overview of key talking points about young people and sex.

I rarely say this—and it’s a mark of how excited I am by the material that I would even propose it— but this feels like a 95-minute play that should have been 2.5 hours. I would love to see a more substantial version of this script, that fleshes out the topical and thoughtful ideas that Padilla starts to discuss here.

The script has an abrupt, ambitious ending that I won’t spoil, except to say that I’m not sure it entirely succeeds. The play consequently ends feeling quite unresolved. But this got me thinking: what does ‘resolved’ mean in storytelling?’ And isn’t it unrealistic to expect survivors of sexual assault to feel that their healing process is ever completely ‘resolved’?

I think this—this feeling of uncertainty caused by the lack of a satisfying ending—this is exactly what Padilla and Barrie are trying to achieve. Healing from trauma isn’t straightforward or linear, and achieving safety for women in a world of male violence is not as simple as ‘take a self-defence class’.

It’s a powerful message, if not a particularly comforting one.

Jo Bradley

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