That Bloody Woman - review

by James Wenley / 13 June, 2016

Photo: Michael Smith. 

What other hit musicals are waiting to be discovered on $10 notes? Hamilton is all New York’s been talking about, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical rescued their founding father from obscurity, ensuring his portrait will remain on the $10 bill. Our Kate’s in no risk of going anywhere, and looking good on the shiny new redesign, but how often do we talk about her?

As Hamilton did for the US constitution, That Bloody Woman makes the arcane political world of suffrage and upper houses of parliament relevant, even edgy. Both shows use historical facts to speak insightfully about our contemporary situation. Both Kate and Hamilton are immigrants: they get the job done. Hamilton’s rap soundtrack is required listening. TBW’s go-to is punk and glam rock, and I need these songs in my life too.

That’s about as far as I can work my ten-dollar founding mother comparison (Hamilton’s cast is famously diverse, TBW’s is… rather Christchurch), but in a meagre canon of New Zealand musicals (Once Were Warriors the Musical, anyone?), TBW could be just as significant to us as Hamilton is to the US.

It’s small-scale and very Kiwi, with only six cast and four band members. We’re enlisted a few times as a chorus. There’s no interval.  It started life in a spiegeltent in Christchurch, and the staging hasn’t expanded much further out for SkyCity. Most of it is narrated and sung straight to us (like Daffodils), but with all the pounding energy of a concert by The Clash. While Esther Stephens’ Sheppard begins wearing a white period gown, her backing ensemble and house-band have gone full anarchist punk. Stephens, a singer-songwriter in her own right, is a remarkable front person and rock god.

They get pianist Andy Manning to puke in his mouth whenever the ladies proudly bandy the F word about (that’s Feminism, though there’s a whole song using the other that we get to sing-along with), but the point is cleverly made that this shouldn’t be a polarising word. It’s a HeforShe affair from co-writers Luke Di Somma and Gregory Cooper and director Kip Chapman. They’ve hooked into the global conversations around sexism and empowerment, as women candidates circle the highest offices of the world. Hillary and Helen might both relate to the spew of misogyny directed at Kate in the title song.

The music throughout the show is catchy and head-bangable. Listen closely to hear just how witty those lyrics are. Di Somma & Cooper have done the impossible: there is not a dud among them. The overall style is tongue in cheek, but they earn the emotional ballads too.

This story of suffrage glory tracks Kate’s life in broad strokes, barely stopping for breath. Her patriarchal Christian upbringing, leaving Britain for God’s Own (where everyone owns a house and no child goes hungry, hoho), and marrying an accountant instead of the printer that she really loved. After hearing the message of an American proto-feminist missionary, Kate, aged 38 with “only” one child, immerses herself in the temperance movement with a fury. Realising that there are no votes in it to swing the politicians to action, she goes all in for enfranchisement.

Enter our adversary, the King Dick, Richard Seddon (Geoffrey Dolan), whose first innuendo-engorged number would make Robin Thicke proud. He doesn’t think the ladies want it badly enough. Kate counters with petitions. Seddon retaliates by questioning her marriage.

The show quotes liberally from Seddon’s speeches, and while it’s very easy for us to boo his ideology (and we do, vocally), Sheppard’s challenge for us is to consider which of the prevailing ideologies today people in a hundred years will find perverse. We’ve all dined out on New Zealand being the first country to give women the vote, but when a woman gets $8.60 for every Kate Sheppard a man gets, we can understand why Kate wants her legacy to count for more.

The finale unfurls blown-up copies of the historical petition. You can look to see if your ancestors were on the right side of history (good on you, Lily Wenley). I wonder if our descendants will be combing the Action Station and archives for our names?

Meanwhile, That Bloody Woman is an easy cause to sign up for. Like Hamilton for the US, it’s the show New Zealand didn’t know it needed. Kate’s back: a kick-ass role model for equality and people power. May her message continue to roll out across the country.
That Bloody Woman: SkyCity Theatre until June 26.


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