Review: Climbers

fortyfive downstairs
1 – 11 June 

Cambridge University, 1939. Rosalind (Meg Taranto), a bright first year student at Newnham College, joins a secret society of ‘Climbers’, fellow students who scale the roofs of the university at night. She’s the only woman in the group. And if she’s discovered, she risks losing a great deal more than her male counterparts.

Playwright Elly D’Arcy developed her work as part of her Honours thesis looking into women and coming of age stories throughout history. Her choice of location is telling: although women were admitted as students to Cambridge in the late 1800s, they were only conferred actual degrees in 1948. And while Rosalind was able to study at a woman’s college, she faced innumerable restrictions: women could only attend lectures with male tutors’ express permission; they were chaperoned if they walked out of college grounds; and the slightest transgression resulted in female students being sent down.

Photos by Harrison Baker

It’s in this cage-like atmosphere – beautifully captured by designer Savanna Wegman, with narrow beds and sloping walls that the students clamber up – that Rosalind experiences her first initiations, both intellectual and emotional. Her desire to be a ‘New Woman’, brave in thought and deed, is contrasted with her room-mate Lucy (Veronica Pena Negrette), a reserved scholarship student, with a more traditional view of a woman’s role in society. But when Lucy is raped by a fellow Climber, George (Charlie Veitch), Rosalind discovers the true nature of power play, an impenetrable Boy’s Club, and women’s lack of agency. Her boyfriend Fred (Eddie Orton) won’t betray a friend and fellow secret society member. Cambridge wants to sweep an unpleasant incident under the carpet. Rosalind must choose between love and the moral courage to do what is right and face the inevitable consequences.

D’Arcy subtly captures Rosalind’s conflicted emotions in a script that is moving and funny by turns. She is less successful when contrasting the secret society of Climbers with the Young Communist League, a group of rather silly and shrill young women, whose grasp of communist ideology is tenuous at best. These farce-like scenes seem written for another play and the thinly-sketched caricatures of the League are at odds with the more fleshed-out characters in the rest of the work.

Director Monique Marani finely tunes her ensemble of 11, deftly reinforcing the power play and emphasising patriarchal structures and the women’s sense of helplessness, which builds to a grand finale of rebellion and retribution. What’s damning is that you could transplant this story to 2023 with very similar outcomes – an unsettling truth. Taranto, Negrette and Orton are especially convincing. Fever103 Theatre is dedicated to bringing new work to the stage – they are clearly a company to watch.

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Dina Ross

Dina Ross

Dina Ross is an arts reviewer, broadcaster and feature writer. Her work has appeared in The Age, Herald Sun, Australian Book Review and Good Reading. She hosted the book program ‘Page Turners’ on 3MBS FM and curated a series of short story readings, ‘Shorts at 45’ at fortyfivedownstairs.
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