Words by Freya Langley
“Are you here for Amelia’s party?”, whispers Lara, as she ushers us into a dark, dank cellar in the Adina Treasury tunnels. Empty cups, trash and liquor bottles litter the tiny room and the performance has already begun.
Following a sold-out season at the Melbourne Fringe, the Melbourne-based Panopticon and Rotten Honey theatre collectives, present Altar Girl - Shakespeare's Othello, as told by teenage girls out for revenge. Think the scheming in Heather’s, Cruel Intentions, and the experimentation and absence of adult supervision as seen in Skins. It explores the social politics of sex and relationships, social hierarchy and the often frightening nature of ‘coming out’ in high school. Employing the themes of betrayal, deceit, jealousy and the war between external forces and internal struggle, as seen in Othello.
Narrated by the cruel and manipulative, Lara, who, like a puppeteer, pulls the strings of her friends and calls the shots. Othello is re-cast as Ollie, the only non-Anglo scholarship student at their exclusive private school. Over the summer, Lara’s best friend, Dess, ‘came out’ and starting dating Ollie; throwing Lara out of the limelight. Now, she has one night to take her revenge and reclaim her throne - a party serves as the arena for her to execute her unforgiving schemes. “Worship at my fucking altar”, resounds throughout the performance.
The venue itself was truly unique. Its minimalist, grungey set design, paired with the claustrophobic, dark, dank cellar space truly complimented the dark, gritty storyline. The space, only a few metres deep, seats a small audience against the wall, with the dramatic scenes of teen girls out for violent revenge playing out, quite literally, on their laps. Speaking with the actors following the show, this set-up aimed to capture the feeling of sitting alone on the edges of a party - awkward, isolated and inquisitive to what is happening around them. The awkwardness and isolation is certainly felt, as the audience watches on, an innocent bystander to the chaotic, violent, vengeful scenes unfolding in front of them.
The performance itself was gripping, the audience finding themselves hanging off of every line and sitting on the edges of their seats, so as not to miss a second of the fast-paced performance. Each actor assumed their character to the fullest extent - with the audience immediately choosing whose side they're on; a frighteningly realistic and uncomfortable throwback to the social politics of high school. It was almost too real. At times, the chaotic screaming and yelling was uncomfortable beyond necessary for the story-line and perhaps over the top. Although, this could very well be indicative of the actors’ mesmerising ability to capture their audience and wholly adopt their characters.
The performance concludes as any first-act Shakespearean tragedy does, with tears and bloody death. Altar Girl is a clever, well-written, modern adaptation of undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. This, backed by a unique venue and stellar acting skills, makes it a must-see for fans of teen drama/thrillers.