What If Women Ruled the World? review – Kubrick meets covfefe as catastrophe strikes

Mayfield, Manchester
Yael Bartana’s ill-judged performance piece at Manchester international festival mixed real, trailblazing women’s debate with actors’ scripted scenes

We occupy a moment when incredible hostility – and actual violence – arises from our inability to discriminate truth from untruth, instinct from indoctrination, information from propaganda. In searching for a route out of the current global mess, then, it is a high-risk strategy to take urgent, informed, factual testament, and mix it in the most intrusive manner possible with dramatic fiction.

The Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana’s What if Women Ruled the World? – a headline commission at Manchester international festival – does just that. At each performance, five outstanding thinkers, legislators, advocates and scientists – all of whom happen to be female – are introduced into an established dramatic structure loosely derived from the closing minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove.

Cinematic and political history regularly commingle in Bartana’s work, which in the past has addressed questions of memory, cultural heritage and belonging. The acclaimed film trilogy And Europe Will Be Stunned – with which the artist represented Poland in the 2011 Venice Biennale – imagined a political movement calling for the repatriation of Jews to Poland. What If…? was something of a work-in-progress, with the action each night filmed for use in a future artwork: from the audience perspective, however, it read as pure theatre.

In the opening segment, five actors bluster entertainingly as a group of macho commanders in their war room, equal parts Kubrick and covfefe. The bomb drops, and we enter dark catastrophe. The doomsday clock – a symbol created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to indicate imminent threat – moves to two and a half minutes to midnight (as it stands currently, in the real world). Back in the war room, now run by women, a panel of experts is invited to find a solution to global crisis.

Bartana’s selection of an all-female scenario is less misandrist per se than an acknowledgement that the only answer may be a total social and political transformation: women here represent a fresh start, a step away from the patriarchal orthodoxy.

One can’t fault Bartana’s taste in women. On Friday night, the participants were leading human rights lawyer Frances Raday; Sharon Squassoni, an expert on nuclear proliferation; psychotherapist and trailblazing anti FGM campaigner Leyla Hussein; Shogofa Sahar, an advocate for women’s rights and education reform; and Galit Eilat, a writer versed in the fields of political theology, religious politics and the principle of sovereignty.

If nothing else, What If …? presented its participating experts with a public platform beyond their habitual arena. Even better, it introduced them to one another. Perhaps they’ll stay in touch, correspond, collaborate: it would be wonderful, possibly even important.

A scene from What If Women Ruled the World?
Equal parts Kubrick and covfefe … a scene from What If Women Ruled the World? Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The invitees were articulate, informed and opinionated, but they were not professional actors. Placing people speaking from the heart (some in their second or even third language) among an ensemble of charismatic performers working from a script was not just jarring but tone deaf. It seemed each time a spontaneous conversation commenced between the participants it was sliced by one of the actors to make way for a scripted intervention – a sound, lighting cue, or skit. The voice of Sahar, the youngest participant, and softly spoken, was drowned out time and again, either by direct scripted intervention by the actors or the melodramatic noise of the doomsday clock ticking. She had risked her life in Afghanistan to fight for women’s voices to be heard: but hey, the show must go on, right?

There were toe-curling moments when conversation stopped and the light lowered to a single spot while one of the actors delivered a “sad face” monologue in the persona of a woman in peril. In presenting these scripted accounts of being a displaced person, or victim of famine or war, they stole time and focus from a woman at the table who had actually suffered the grotesque abuse of FGM as a young girl (Hussein), and another who had grown up in a conflict zone and left their home country as a refugee (Sahar). What If?’s tight dramatic structure dictated that the actors stop the expert witnesses from speaking and sharing their stories: indeed at times they even seemed to speak for them. Where there should have been empathy, respect and open debate, the participants were silenced or upstaged with ill-judged comedy skits.

Eileen Walsh in What If Women Ruled The World? created by Yael Bartana.
Misjudged … Eileen Walsh in What If Women Ruled The World? created by Yael Bartana. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The Dr Strangelove conceit provided a stunning set design – a re-versioning of Ken Adam’s war room, now fretted with tendrils of ivy, as if nature, or what was left of it, reasserted itself in the post-apocalyptic world order. While its bellicose machismo and quasi-fascistic overtones may find echo in the present political moment Strangelove is political satire. The scenario in which the doomsday clock is poised before midnight and humanity is in imminent peril from war and environmental catastrophe? That’s real. Let’s deal with that first rather than make-believe. Life, as the bumper sticker reminds us, is not a dress rehearsal: neither is it all a performance.

Some blame for the inflexible and jarring dramatic scenario should be laid with performance director Vicky Featherstone and writer Abi Morgan: neither are strangers to sensitive material. Both comedy and fiction can be powerful tools in politics and in art, but this felt misjudged. Who knows: perhaps the whole performance was another layer of brilliant satire, designed to generate outrage at the silencing of female voices. It still felt like a terrible squandering of human talent.

• Yael Bartana’s What if Women Ruled the World? premiered as part of Manchester international festival.


Hettie Judah

The GuardianTramp

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