That Bloody Woman
26/08/2022 - 03/09/2022
Writers: Luke Di Somma and Gregory Cooper
Directors: Kyle Chuen and Courteney Mayall
Musical Direction: Nick Braae
Choreography and Costuming: Lauren Mann
Kate Sheppard is back. New Zealand’s favourite daughter is one of the most important figures in the history of suffrage and women’s rights and now she has her own musical! Like Hamilton for the US, That Bloody Woman is the musical NZ didn’t know it needed.
The show is framed as a rock concert for Kate and her ‘gang’ to tell us her story, the story of New Zealand’s suffrage movement and to give us an almighty kick up the ass more than 125 years later. We see her and her friends transition from temperance to suffrage, taking on the anti-suffrage Prime Minister of the day, Richard “King Dick” Seddon and ultimately persuading a quarter of the female population to sign a crucial petition. But behind the public persona her personal life was in turmoil – trapped in a loveless marriage, in love with her best friend and deprived of her only child when she needed him most.
It may be a Kiwi story, but it’s also a universal one – a story of how one person can start a movement to change the world. This is more than history, this is HER story.
Musical , Theatre ,
A bloody triumph
Review by D.A. Taylor 27th Aug 2022
That Bloody Woman is a rarity in Aotearoa New Zealand theatre. It’s original. It’s a punk rock musical. It’s unapologetically feminist. It shines fresh light on the suffragette movement. It’s raunchy and funny and sexy without being blue. It manages to bring a force and urgency to the persistent, pernicious issues that continue to rattle around our culture, even if there is 150 years separating us and Kate Sheppard.
It’s also very, very good.
Developed around 2014-5 by Luke Di Somma and Gregory Cooper, That Bloody Woman captures the life of Aotearoa New Zealand’s iconic suffragette Kate Sheppard (Jane Leonard) and her battles, primarily against the parochial patriarch Richard “King Dick” Seddon (Nick Wilkinson). Surrounded by her crew of supporters, Kate faces all-too-familiar battles: a problematic drinking culture, toxic masculinity, disenfranchisement and marginalisation. The show drives a party bus through history, relaying the key moments of Kate’s life and her drive towards women’s suffrage in 1893 – as well as her personal struggles with marriage and the loss of her husband and son.
This is very much Kate’s show, who is equal parts rock god, MC, and show-woman whipping up the audience and her gang into frenzies. Because the show is squarely told from her reflective perspective – opening up the night with “Did you miss me, Kirikiriroa?” – it benefits from all the biases and subjectivity of both time and character. The Kate’s-eye-view of the world – part 1890s, part 2015, part 2022 – gives the show permission to villainise her opponents while also giving Kate room to be fallible and human. It also offers a show squarely for today’s audience: there are plenty of jokes poking fun at political gaffes (such as John Key’s infamous ponytail pulling), ‘meninism’ movements, friendly audience ribbing, and enough improvisation to make the show feel alive and present each night.
The most obvious villain is our longest-standing prime minister Richard “King Dick” Seddon, a domineering force who vehemently opposes the suffragette movement on the grounds of ‘protecting women’ from the pressures of participating in politics, and that they have insufficient brain capacity or time to understand the systems to which they are beholden, that they are here to breed and acquiesce. Don’t be fooled; these aren’t caricatures. These were the arguments used at the time, and it’s the same language used in extremist corners of the internet today. And while history is ambivalent to the real Richard Seddon (despite his protestation of women’s rights, he’s widely remembered as a champion of the people who earned his statue outside Parliament), the Kate-sized view of the man will soon have you loathing the pimping, bullying King Dick played with that special kind of sinister slime and showman charm that Hamilton theatre stalwart Nick Wilkinson has cultivated in his stage presences.
This is Kate’s show, but it’s also Jane Leonard’s show. I was fortunate to join Bold Theatre for a boisterous rehearsal of That Bloody Woman just two weeks out from opening and poach some time from Jane, who is a rare triple-threat wunderkind in Aotearoa New Zealand theatre. Graduating from NASDA in 2013, she’s worked professionally an actor, singer teacher and choreographer; she teaches drama and writes poetry. She’s performed in a formidable list of shows (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Chicago; Evita; Phantom of the Opera – the list goes on and on), but Jane has largely, bafflingly, been in supporting or chorus roles. In 2021, she took over the role of Elphaba in New Plymouth Operatic Society’s 2021 production of Wicked, flown in from Auckland to complete the season after Catharine Hay developed vocal issues.
When asked Why this show, why now, Jane lights up. She’s been connected to That Bloody Woman almost since its inception: “I saw the original reading at the Court Theatre [Christchurch], then the development at the Spiegeltent, then the opening at the Court. I’ve been friends with the writers and the original cast. I’ve been obsessed with the show since it was first developed. So when [Bold’s] production came up, I thought – oh my gosh, why not say yes?”
But Jane’s investment goes beyond familiarity. While Di Somma and Cooper have provided the foundation for a mythical, irreverent version of Kate, Jane also saw this as her opportunity to build a new identity for the woman on the front of the $10 note. As a biracial Māori woman, Jane has described the conflict in finding an authentic Kate – “and a Kate that’s authentic to me” – despite the lack of Māori representation in the Sheppard story. The script doesn’t offer much. “But Māori women like Meri Te Tai were a massive part of the suffragette movement. And I’m very political. It’s difficult to not be today.”
“The cool – and difficult – thing about Kate is that this is a heightened version of her and herself. She has a few walls up, but her emotions – and her anger – definitely seep through. There are past experiences that make her an interesting character with a lot of levels,” Jane explains.
Jane locked into her Kate the night before we spoke, liberating herself from the self-expectation of being a copy of Esther Stevens (who portrayed Kate in 2015). On opening night, she makes the stage her own, floating in four-inch heels with unrivalled charisma and charm, intelligence and vulnerability – the “incredible feminine power of Kate” that balances the conflict of doing what is right but not easy. In her songs, Jane brings out a rich timbre and prowess that fills the space. In order for the show to work, our Kate also has to negotiate the humorous elements while maintaining herself as the ‘straight’ character – which Jane does with elegance and a magnetic intensity. If we don’t see Jane Leonard leading more roles, then it will be our loss.
The show comes alive thanks to the blend of talent working behind the scenes. The musical direction is in the trusted hands of Nick Braae, who effortlessly steers the five-piece band to fill the space and weave in hints of Queen and Meat Loaf among the Clash-flecked songs. Special mention must be made to the work of “disco-witch” Lauren Mann, who has brought her cabaret and punk sensibilities into the production to up the voltage. The choreography is a much-needed kick in the ribs: dynamic and volatile while also showcasing a level of discipline from the cast that makes for success. In her hands, the design is part The Damned concert spiked with Siouxsie Sioux and Vivienne Westwood; Kate is hemmed in by her high collar motif, but then tears away with stovepipe pants and a three-quarter rock jacket to fuse a funk punk into her story. Lauren has threaded in a history of punky in-yer-face feminism – one made possible by the likes of Kate Sheppard – into each costume.
The co-direction of Kyle Chuen and Courteney Mayall, who between them have an eye-watering catalogue of experience and have given Bold productions a special flair. It’s no wonder they chose to co-direct this show: Chuen was the first William Lovell-Smith, Kate’s second husband, across four seasons of That Bloody Woman including the national tour. And Mayall, with whom I also spoke, reflected the need to help change the narrative. “We’re still fighting the same things today, certainly in terms of women’s rights, domestic violence, substance use reform. The issues are so current. There’s a fight in the show, and a message that we have to keep repeating about respecting women and marginalised groups. There’s big feminine energy in the show, and I hope that there’s a connection there for the audience with personal experiences.”
The best of Bold Theatre comes when they combine their considerable bank of talent with the local and relevant. The same production team gave us Hood Street: The Musical which was a pitch-perfect, hilarious and self-depreciating look at Hamilton’s drinking street. Bold’s Old, Bold and Going Nowhere and Urinetown spoke directly to their audiences on their own terms. God of Carnage earned its place by casting four excellent actors in a play that uses the trusted formula of ‘four awful people in a room together.’Conversely, shows about US servicemen shipping off to Vietnam or American assassins have little relevance; I was underwhelmed by 2019’s Dogfight, and not because of a lack of production quality, talent, direction, use of the space etc. etc., but because the story had neither thematic nor story relevance to New Zealand today. Assassins (2021) failed to draw me in for similar reasons. Bold’s return to a local story with urgent contemporary themes, then, represents a victory. By combining exciting choices with important themes, That Bloody Woman gives Kirikiriroa-Hamilton’s artistic community precisely what it needs: a risk, a challenge, and a step in the right direction.
The imperfections: Louder, please. In my mind, at least, a punk show needs to be almost bone-rattlingly loud, and especially in the opening numbers. Turn it up to 11. Also: some of the vocal work wasn’t clear, especially in the larger numbers. My guess is that the sound wasn’t tuned for a full audience in the Meteor. Having said this, the audience loved the show, and it’s not always necessary to understand every word in a punk-inflected song to understand the meaning – especially with such strong musical direction and an excellent band delivering on their part. There is also the issue of accents, which are sometimes Kiwi, sometimes travelling rapidly across rural UK. Not dealbreakers, but.
At the end of the night, we have a celebration of sorts, and Kate’s final challenge reflects that. There are deaths, yes, and fights; marriages end. In 1893, women were granted the right to vote – but that is not the end of Kate’s story. Instead, it’s a chance to pause, collect her breath, keep fighting, and pass on that fight to the audience.
With That Bloody Woman, Bold Theatre have earned their place as the leading production company in the city and created a standard that others must fight to meet. Their winning combination of production value, tight direction and performance, and the urgent relevancy of their shows sets them uniquely apart. Bold Theatre’s That Bloody Woman is a sign that Hamilton might have finally embraced its theatrical renaissance.
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