Wherever She Wanders tackles university rape culture

Writer Kendall Feaver and actor Emily Havea speak with Gary Nunn about their bold new play, Wherever She Wanders.

“I wanted to show the female experience isn’t a homogenous experience; there’s no one female voice,” playwright Kendall Feaver says of her newest work, Wherever She Wanders, now playing at SBW Stables Theatre. 

It’s a work the theatre clearly believes in – it has saved it three times after Covid related interruptions, and finally resurrects it now.

The Sentinel caught up with Feaver and lead actor Emily Havea to discuss the themes it explores. 

University rape culture

The play takes place at one of one of Australia’s oldest residential colleges at the time it appoints its first ever female master – a role which usually threw money at certain incidents to avoid public relations disasters.

When a serious allegation of sexual misconduct is made against a male resident, a female journalism student challenges the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude.

The First Stone

The play is billed as a “21st century reworking of The First Stone”, a nonfiction book by Helen Garner, which explored an incident at the University of Melbourne in 1992, in which two female students claimed a residential college master had groped them; he denied the allegations.

Garner’s book sought to ask “some questions about sex and power”. One of those was: “Why did the women go to the police?” And: “Why didn’t the students just sort it out locally, immediately, or get their mothers, or friends, to mediate?” 

She expresses frustration at the female accusers and their supporters, calling them priggish puritans. She wants to “shake them till their teeth rattled” and says their handling of the incident “makes me ashamed to call myself a feminist”.

Garner’s reasoning is telling of a generational split amongst women and feminists; one which drove Feaver to write this play: “If every bastard who’s ever laid a hand on us were dragged into court, the judicial system of the state would be clogged for years,” Feaver tells The Sentinel.

“A playwright is close to being a sociologist,” she says. “I’m interested in complexities; the more contradictions I can find the better – because that’s generally how we are as people.”

First edition cover of The First Stone by Helen Garner. Image: Picador Australia.

Emily Havea – lead actor

It was this exploration of nuance that attracted Emily Havea to the role.

“I thought I’d side with the young woman in the battle between her and the institution, but by the end I actually don’t know who I side with – even though I play her,” she says. “That’s the sign of a great writer.”

Feaver wrote the play with her in mind, having seen her in the one woman show, Grounded.

When The Sentinel spoke to Havea, she’d recently been reading the 2018 Red Zone Report by Nina Funnell and Anna Hush. It investigates sexual violence and hazing in Australian university residential colleges.

“I got to page 20 and had to stop,” she says. “I felt sick to my stomach.”

Even though the play was due to be staged in 2020, Havea says nothing has gone out of date: “In fact, nothing has gone out of date in thirty years – look at the Christian Porter case and Brittany Higgins. It’s depressing,” she says.

This play attracted her because it explores the tensions around ‘internet justice’ for women when the police and criminal justice system let them down: “It comes from a deep frustration with the patriarchal system which doesn’t serve us as women,” she says.

Havea was last seen in Fun Home at the Sydney Theatre Company where she played Joan, love interest to the lead played by Maggie McKenna. “Her voice is a portal to God,” she says of her co-star. “I’ve really enjoyed the fact my last three roles have had queer love interests.” This includes a cross-gender casting of Oklahoma! in Richard Carroll’s production. 

Emily Havea in Wherever She Wanders. Photo: Brett Boardman.

Kendall Feaver – writer

The playwright has been trying to put this play on for a lengthy chunk of her career, with rebuffs from theatre companies and then the Covid-19 pandemic acting as roadblocks.

“I’ve been pitching it since 2012,” she says. “Initially theatre companies said it was too specific and niche without broad appeal. Then #metoo happened and theatre companies told me it was too topical. Then they told me they already had their #metoo play!”

She thinks part of the challenge is that the media is more aware than the theatre world of the term ‘rape culture’.

Feaver realises part of her job is breathing new life into an age-old problem, and reflects that in her characters.

“Being young, there’s a narcissism to thinking you’re the first to interrogate such an important topic,” she says. “Social justice exists in cycles for women – it must be exhausting for older generations.”

Several dramatic tensions encouraged her to write about this topic.

“First, these universities are where many of our political leaders emerge from. That’s important. Then I wanted to say something about the unforgiving nature of the internet. I write plays because I don’t understand something, or I’m unnerved – or in this case, both,” she says.

The particular way women are using the internet, media and public domain to reclaim power intrigued her: “Some women are bypassing legal systems entirely; the public allegation itself becomes the justice for them,” she says.

She’s hoping women will bring their 18-year-old daughters with them.

“I’ve done my job well if younger women understand a little more about what it’s like to be that older character – and vice versa,” she says.

Kendall Feaver, pictured, hopes mothers will bring their daughters with them to watch Wherever She Wanders. Photo: supplied.

Griffin Theatre Company’s Wherever She Wanders plays the SBW Stables Theatre, 13 Craigend Street, Darlinghurst, until Saturday, 11 December, 2021. For further information and tickets, visit https://griffintheatre.com.au/whats-on/wherever-she-wanders-2/ .

Gary Nunn was a 2019 Walkleys Our Watch fellow. The fellowship promotes better coverage of violence against women. He is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.