A Girl and a Gun: a Review

‘All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun’ – Jean-Luc Godard

Last night I went to the opening of Calm Down, Dear, a feminist festival run by Camden People’s Theatre. Calm Down, Dear is in its third year and it’s easy to see why – one look at the incredible four-week line-up and you’ll be wondering how many shows it’s possible to see without neglecting your job and loved ones. From a drag show set in the aftermath of a Tehran uprising, to a battle scene and dance heavy exploration of female friendship and fantasy, there’s something for everyone who likes a bit of gender equality with their theatre.

The Camden People’s Theatre is a hidden gem and one I hadn’t discovered before. Disregarding the broad scope of its shows, the bar area is on the right side of kitsch (yes, mismatched armchairs; no, Cath Kidston) and the theatre itself is incredibly intimate, allowing you to feel very much a part of each performance. This is particularly useful in the play chosen to launch the festival, ‘A Girl and A Gun’.

‘A Girl and A Gun’ is Louise Orwin’s creation and she holds nothing back in involving the audience, forcing them to be complicit in her conclusions. In the small, dark room, Orwin (playing Her, the ‘heroine’ of the play, with an excellent southern accent and the ability to flip your emotions from one extreme to the next) constantly draws your attention back to the fact that we, the audience, are watching her. And she might like being watched. Or she might not. Either way, there is nothing she can do about it, because Her is the classic femme fatale and despite all indicators to the contrary – cherry red lips that spit cherry pips across the stage, a stomping pair of cowboy boots, a gun – she is completely passive and powerless. A beautiful doll, to be used and abused by both the plot and by Him.

Him is played by a different man each night, and the actor chosen goes onstage completely cold. He discovers his lines and stage directions for the very first time via autocue, which we can usually see on a projected screen behind him; and this autocue and his reaction to it add comedy to what is otherwise a surprisingly dark show. Together, Him (played on this occasion by Andrew Barton) and Her go through the motions of a classic action/western/noir film, exploring what it means to be a hero and a heroine in so many of the films we watch, and whether we’re as comfortable with that when watching live as we are with it on our screens. It also looks at the deeply entangled relationship between sex and violence in film, particularly in relation to Her. The layout of the stage is clever – while a centre projected screen shows us the autocue, projected screens either side of that show us what is happening on stage through a camera lens. We can see the action both live, and recorded, and compare how they make us feel.

This is particularly effective in a scene at the start of the show, when Her performs a dance facing the audience. It’s a scene we’ve seen before – David Lynch enjoys a strangely intimate dance scene, as does Quentin Tarentino, among others – and we laugh at the trope of the heroine ‘spontaneously’ breaking into a carefully-prepared, clearly rehearsed sexy dance. Later, she performs the dance a second time, but now facing Him. The camera is perfectly lined up so that we see it on the projected screen behind them at an angle which resembles movies we’ve all seen.  His head is partially visible, at the side of the shot, but she is the focus. Her body, her breasts, are the focus. As she dances, Orwin asks us to reconsider the scene; how voyeuristic, and disturbing, is it to watch Her perform for Him. Is she really performing for us? Are we complicit in the strangely degrading display of submission and desire?

Later, we watch Her die. She dies over and over again in different ways, each more ridiculous than the last (‘[She is blown to smithereens]’, the autocue reads). It’s immediately recognisable how often we’ve watched women like Her die. One final death, a headshot, is straight out of the Bond film Skyfall, when Bond girl Séverine is shot in the head and immediately forgotten. How disposable are the women we watch in films? After Her’s final death, she lies motionless on the floor, as Him walks towards centre stage and begins the next scene. The autocue reads ‘[She gets on her knees]. Him glances at her, but she lays still. He says his line. The autocue reads again, ‘[She gets on her knees]’. Her doesn’t get up. When she finally rises, she is visibly shaken, and we are unsure if what we’re watching is outside or inside the context of the play. She walks to the side of the stage with her back to the audience, drinks some water, re-arranges her dress. Fusses with her hair. Sips some more water. When she is composed, she comes forward to continue the scene. It’s only a few minutes long but is intensely uncomfortable for the audience as we realise that the heroine in films is so regularly abused and it never affects her – if she lives, that is – it only serves to spur Him into action (unless he’s the one who shot her). We may see her slapped by the hero in a fit of passion, but we don’t see her collecting herself afterwards, upset and wondering whether to leave. We don’t see her deal with the aftermath of sexual violence, or torture, or a terrible beating (in True Romance, the heroine is beaten near to death – in the next scene she appears in, about a day later, she is sitting on a sofa at the side of the road, “enjoying the sunrise and wonderful view of the LAX Airport runways”, as the script reads).  She is always upbeat, always sexy, always loyal to Him no matter what danger he puts her in.

Quentin Tarentino, the writer of True Romance, bears the brunt of the criticism laid upon these tropes because he embraces them like no-one else does. The soundtrack of the play is heavily taken from his films, and the dialogue feels like it came straight from one of his scripts. I’m a big fan of Tarantino films (I know – they’re problematic in a vast array of ways and I do try to keep my mind critical, even as I’m enjoying another gruesome shoot-out or charismatic pimp) but my eyes have been opened to the absurdity of his monologues, expertly mocked by Orwin in this play, or the extent to which he mixes violence with sex. This too, is focused on in ‘Girl and a Gun’. In one scene, Him teaches Her to shoot; she holds it “tighter and tighter” against her body, almost climaxing as she pulls the trigger. In a later scene, Him tucks his gun into his belt, stroking it obscenely before placing it in Her’s mouth and asking her to describe it. Him and Her speak directly to the audience, asking us how we feel as we watch. Do we like watching? Does Her like us watching? Again, it asks us how to think about our involvement with films which portray male and female protagonists like this. Are we happy to watch without the protective screen between us? Do we think it’s so heroic and romantic when we can reach out and touch the woman with a gun in her mouth? Near the end, Him and Her take turns describing how it felt to be together. She uses language that we’ve heard before, comparing herself to an automaton, a schoolgirl, a slave, a doll. He talks about strangling her, smothering her, dominating her. He talks about feeling like a wealthy boss, an action hero, the star of the show. As he does, Her leaves. The autocue continues and we read her lines silently. She has left because she’s tired, it says.

We are all tired. It is time to put these tired ideas of hero and heroine, or Him and Her, aside and work towards something better. Louise Orwin knows that, and coaxes us to take responsibility, throwing off the passivity that we’re used to seeing in women on-screen.

Words by Jade Moulds