Image: Phoebe Hurst
If there’s one New Zealander who needs no introduction, it’s Kate Sheppard. But let’s be honest about something: she’s so famous, so iconic, that portraying her on stage can be more than a little intimidating.
But the folks behind That Bloody Woman aren’t intimidated. Not only are they unafraid, but they’re portraying the person who’s arguably Aotearoa’s greatest heroine as you’ve probably never seen her before: loud, proud and in your face. Leading the charge to win women the vote, Sheppard (played by Westside star Esther Stephens) takes on the patriarchy, public opinion and even Prime Minister Richard “King Dick” Seddon in this rock musical.
One of the show’s key figures is Phoebe Hurst. Playing a myriad of characters including members of Sheppard’s “gang,” Hurst says that, despite Sheppard being one of the most famous New Zealanders ever, having her depicted in a play doesn’t add as much extra pressure as one might think. “I am very proud to be a part of this project and think that we’ve done a solid job of retelling her story in an engaging and truthful way,” she explains. “The more people we can get to tell her story to, the better.”
Involved with That Bloody Woman since the beginning, Hurst sees parallels between the oppressive structures Kate Sheppard went up against in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and those same structures that hold women back today. But Hurst adds that Sheppard would probably be heartened by the progress that has been made. “I think she’d say that she was very proud to be a wāhine of this country,” she says. “Kate was all for equity of the sexes and of race, so I’d say she would be gunning for a seat in parliament (if she didn’t already have one!) so she could continue to have a voice in these issues.”
Believing that feminism is “equity for all and freedom of self-expression,” Hurst’s feminism goes far beyond That Bloody Woman. Recently, she got naked in public and read feminist literature as part of the Christchurch edition of Naked Girls Reading.
Uh-huh. You read that right.
Badass? You bet. But Hurst says shedding her clothes in front of a group of strangers to read was a whole lot more than that. “For me, this was totally a self-confidence exercise,” she explains. “I hope that the audience had fun and maybe they felt moved by bit and pieces, but I absolutely did it for myself, so I don’t really care so much if people enjoyed it or not.”
That’s not all Hurst has to say. “I believe everyone is entitled to live their best life, in whatever way is truthful to them, free from oppression and judgement,” she says. “If it’s not hurting anyone else and it doesn’t impact on your own life, how is this a problem?”
But despite all the progress that has been made, we of course know there are still some serious challenges in the struggle for equality. Hurst says it boils down to a couple of things. “Ignorance and fear.”
However, she insists all is not lost – and there’s plenty we can do to support the sisterhood. “You just gotta keep on fighting the good fight, support causes or charities where you can and speak up for those who can’t,” Hurst says, adding that some of those causes and charities doing kickass things that are worth getting involved with include The Women’s Centre Christchurch, Nope Sisters Clothing, Wellington Rape Crisis, Rainbow Youth Aotearoa and Thursdays In Black Aotearoa.
But making a positive difference is even simpler than that, she says. “You may not be able to fix the whole world, but you can make a change in the people around you. Pay it forward and all that.”
That Bloody Woman is now playing at the Wellington Opera House until Saturday, September 16. It will then show in Auckland from September 19-21, Dunedin from September 26 until October 8, Nelson on October 11 and 12, Napier on October 17, and finally Tauranga on October 19 and 20. Tour and booking information can be found here.Support Villainesse