“Turn your head and you’ll see me”
Colleen Murphy’s Armstrong’s War remains one of the best new plays I’ve seen in recent years and that it hasn’t returned to these shores since its initial Sunday/Monday run at the Finborough in 2013 is an absolute travesty. In the meantime, we do now have the opportunity to see another of Murphy’s plays – 2012’s Pig Girl – which comes freighted with a different sense of expectation, as its premiere in Edmonton, Alberta was mired in controversy and sparked fervent protests at its perceived cultural appropriation. (An excellent précis can be read here.)
The play was inspired by a horrifically true story of a Canadian pig farmer and serial killer who was convicted of six murders but implicated in dozens more – his preferred victim being sex workers of aboriginal descent, a section of society too easily ignored and neglected, allowing him to literally get away with murder. Murphy depersonalises her story though, elevating it to near-mythical status in order to give a voice to the thousands of women, so many of them nameless, whose lives have been impacted by senseless violence.
So we become witness to an elongated scene of torture and murder as the merciless Killer strings Dying Woman up on a meat hook to meet her inevitable fate. And at either side, we see her adoptive Sister trying her damnedest to convince Police Officer that her sibling is a genuine missing person and that any sex and drugs in her life shouldn’t negate that fact – we see Sister’s battle for the truth stretch over nearly ten years. Unsurprisingly, Pig Girl is a brutal watch and Helen Donnelly’s production never lets us sit easily, rightly so given the violence so unflinchingly portrayed.
And Murphy also maintains a niggling discomfort in showing how all four lives have been irrevocably shaped by traumatic events. Kirsten Foster’s Dying Woman has a near-impossible dignity within her desperation, Olivia Darnley is devastatingly effective as the Sister who still lights a candle every year and Joseph Rye’s rage against his own police system is again well done. The introduction of the Killer’s voice (Damien Lyne), detailing his own abusive childhood, forces tough questions though about ideas of victimhood and the cycle of abuse, rather than directly addressing the misogyny it has inculcated. It is searching, if occasionally a little too static, writing – hard work but in a good way.