This article was was written by Maddy Costa for The Guardian on 22nd January, 2014 - https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jan/22/rashdash-ugly-sisters-feminist-theatre
RashDash are the punk princesses of late-night theatre. As their new show opens, they tell Maddy Costa why they're putting the 'feral' into fairytale.
Their late-night shows at the Edinburgh festival are packed with the kind of young audiences other theatres can only dream about. People talk about them the way fans might about their favourite band. And their latest show, The Ugly Sisters, which sets raucous dance and a spitfire story to live music, makes most gigs look bland.
RashDash are a company with a different energy about them – an irreverence and excitement theatre doesn't often inspire. The company's founders, Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen, are both 26, with oddly similar, high-cheekboned faces (though you can tell them apart by Greenland's poppy-red hair). They always wanted to make plays with dance and songs in them: not musicals, says Greenland, but shows with "a very large amount of risk and rawness, and a kind of attack".
That's certainly how The Ugly Sisters comes across. Contrary to the traditional view of these characters as selfish, bullying and heartless, the siblings, as conceived and played by Greenland and Goalen, are doleful, scuzzy creatures from the wrong side of the tracks. They have been rejected by their mother – and the world at large – because they're not radiant and conventionally beautiful like their Barbie-doll sister, Ella.
Although it could be argued that the feminist tradition of rewriting fairy stories doesn't particularly need expanding, Goalen says that these tales still carry a negative charge within modern culture. "We talk about the representation of women and body image in the media a lot, and there's a real kinship between the way fairy stories reward women for being unassuming and pretty and good wives, and the problems we have with the way women are represented in some media and television," she says. "Those media often have heroes and villains and moral absolutes, and the fairytale also deals with stereotypes in that way."
Feminism has always been key to the duo's work, although it took them a while to work out how to avoid hammering their issues home, says Greenland. Her parents, also theatre-makers, were part of "that very political punk-theatre movement in the 1970s". At Hull University, she read about the female theatre-makers who preceded her, knowing she wanted to place herself within that context. (Goalen has a more traditional background: her father is a university lecturer, her mother a health visitor and nurse.)
The pair met at university and have been working together ever since. Their first show, The Honeymoon, was about two women who left their husbands at the altar and ran away together. Their first show, The Honeymoon, emerged from long discussions about the idea of marriage: "It was about two women who left their husbands at the altar and had their honeymoon together," says Greenland. "We just loved the idea of two women wrestling in their wedding dresses."
Scary Gorgeous, from 2011, dealt with "raunch culture and the sexualisation of young women", and attracted accusations that they were re-enacting these problems, not commenting on or denouncing them. "It's a difficult line to walk," says Greenland. "You want to put that world of raunch and sexiness on stage, but in a space where you're not exploiting yourself, and where it feels like a powerful statement." It's a subject they'll be returning to in a future show, working with the playwright Alice Birch to look at the worst aspects of violent pornography, and how its easy accessibility on the internet affects women and perceptions of sex generally.
They met Birch at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and quickly absorbed her into the company: previously, Greenland and Goalen had written their plays themselves, but they have since realised it's not their strong point. Birch is also collaborating with them on their biggest show yet, about women and war. "We want to explore what women fight for and what it's like for a woman to be a warrior," says Greenland. So far the character list runs from female soldiers and snipers to child prostitutes, the mothers of soldiers and a female defence minister: they're not kidding when they describe it as epic.
The Ugly Sisters was unusual in starting with the concept first, and finding its politics and story second. Their initial aim was to make a cabaret show. "Music is a really important part of what we do, and we wanted to push that further," says Goalen. "We thought we were making a series of songs, but it evolved into something quite different."
Transformation is central to theatre, and yet there's something almost unnerving about the extent to which these two young women metamorphose on stage. "It's like there are these little creatures inside of us that are angry and hissing and spitting and feral – it's really liberating to be that fierce," says Greenland. "Girls are taught to be so ladylike and careful from a really young age," adds Goalen. "And we are incredibly polite in real life. So it's fun to go on stage and terrorise people."