FEATURE on ‘The Unspoken Word is Joe’

The Unspoken Word is ‘Joe’ | Feature

Jason Blake | SMH
19 Jan, 2015

playwright Zoey Dawson divides herself in the forbidden zone

When actress Zoey Dawson sat down to write her first play, she was horrified to discover her only idea was one her mentors told her was verboten for emerging female playwrights: the relationship break-up drama.

“I was mortified,” Dawson recalls. “While I was writing, I couldn’t resist commenting on how much I hated what I was doing, and so it became a weird little beast that was despising its own form.”

That “weird little beast” is now The Unspoken Word is ‘Joe’, an unorthodox comedy coming to Griffin after critically acclaimed, sold-out seasons at the Melbourne Fringe and Brisbane Festival.

Directed by Declan Greene (Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography), the play follows the break-up story of the lead character, Zoey Dawson, a semi-fictional version of the writer. But what begins as a conventional play about love and loss descends into something much stranger.

“It starts out as the play as ‘Zoey’ wrote it,” Dawson explains. “It’s the kind of play you’re used to seeing, particularly from a young writer. But then the form is slowly punctured and it follows the psychological trajectory of Zoey as she goes down the rabbit hole of her own self-delusion. It’s like a play within a play.”

Dawson says The Unspoken Word is ‘Joe’ is in part a response to the media furore around the dearth of female writers and directors working in mainstage theatres in Melbourne and Sydney. Suddenly the spotlight was turned on young female artists. “There was a feeling in theatre companies like, ‘Shit, we need to get more women through the doors’,” Dawson recalls. “I think Unspoken Word came out of that. It’s a reflection of what happens when a group is less confident or less ready in their work but at the same time expected to step up to the plate with the same confidence as their male counterparts.”

Confidence is a big issue for female artists, Dawson believes. “I read an interesting statistic once about confidence and gender. It said a man has to be 35 per cent certain he can achieve something before he will undertake the task, whereas a woman has to be 95 per cent certain. I think failure or success is taken more personally by women. It makes us more cautious and less resilient. The play reflects what can happen in your psyche when you suddenly have the opportunity to be in the spotlight and how that can manifest in panic and anxiety.”

Audiences who enjoyed Declan Greene’s work with Sisters Grimm (Calpurnia DescendingSummertime in the Garden of Eden), will immediately recognise his style, says Dawson.

“It goes to unexpected places. It’s constantly surprising and undercutting your expectations,” she says.

Actress Nikki Shiels, who was nominated for a Green Room award for her performance as the fragile, narcissistic playwright, says the character is a lot of fun to play. “She’s quite a clown but she’s also very earnest,” she says. “She’s full of facade and false humility and through the evening we see her true colours fly in an outrageous and humiliating way. The role is quite unpredictable, there’s a lot of room to move which makes it quite spontaneous. It’s terrifying and liberating experience to not know quite what’s going to happen.”

Dawson says she was tempted to play the role of Zoey herself but chose not to. “It was a lot easier to work on the script from outside of it,” she says. “I also think it creates a nice layer of fiction to the piece to have someone else play the character. I also think I would have gone mad if I’d try to play this other version of myself.”