These days, being unexpected and non-conformist can be just another exercise in self-branding, and it’s essential to the play that Kimberly isn’t just that crazy friend who can be sooo random. She’s closer to Villanelle of Killing Eve, forever toeing the line between loveable weirdo and abject monster.
“For every time she does something that feels like it’s fun in a wish-fulfilment sense, like publicly masturbating a make-up artist in a department store because he tells annoying stories about how crazy he acts at music festivals, there’ll still be something she does like pour boiling water on a middle-aged woman for no reason,’’ says Greene. ‘‘She tests you. It is kind of like a game of Nick drawing lines in the sand over and over again and seeing if you’ll come with Kimberly across it, or say ‘actually that was a little bit too much for me’.”
The first thing Coyle wanted Kimberly to break was theatre itself. She came to him during a writing exercise in which he envisioned a character who could enter any scene and devastate its theatrical underpinnings – hauling subtext to the surface, calling out other characters or literally destroying the joint.
‘‘I’ve seen so many plays where I wish a fearless girl would come in and ruin theatre,’’ Coyle says. He wrote five scenes for Kimberly and entered them in a competition. Soon he’d been commissioned to give her a full-length play of her own, and Kimberly went from writing exercise to fully realised character.
“That was when I really had to figure out how to make her more than just a comet that comes in and destroys. Make her into something more human, which was really hard. That’s where the love story came in, because it’s such a powerful force and if anything could have bumped her off her trajectory it was love.’’
The Feather in the Web is a girl-meets-boy story in which love is as destructive as the character who wants it. Someone like Kimberly doesn’t find conventional romance without seriously compromising who she is. ‘‘The play is interrogating Cupid at gunpoint,’’ Coyle says. ‘‘Seeing something so magnificent deliberately cut its own legs off in front of you, seeing how futile all that pain that she’s going through is, and hopefully recognising it in your own history, that’s where the empathy comes in.’’
I would love to think of myself as being a Kimberly. But none of us are.
Greene says that there’s a sense in which Kimberly’s plight is a kind of queer tragedy. ‘‘She exists in a world that’s hugely out of step with the contemporary world. She’s adjusted in her own very particular way to exist within society and developed this entirely other set of values, and then there’s a process of assimilation that happens.”
To fit into a world that has no place for her differences, Kimberly has to give those same differences away. “There’s a core horror to the play there that resonates with me,” says the director.
It’s important that the audience doesn’t escape lightly. As compelling as Kimberly is, we’re on the side that ultimately asks her to conform. “We all like to think that we’re Kimberlys,” Greene says. “That’s part of the joke of the play. All of the other characters are so obsessed with self-image and being different and interesting and quirky but they’re not. They’re completely interchangeable and self-involved and excruciating.
“And she is someone who has absolutely no care for how she’s read by people, almost no self-consciousness at all, and so from an audience’s perspective and a maker’s perspective we all love Kimberly. I would love to think of myself as being a Kimberly. But none of us are. We’re all absolutely the other characters in the play who are deeply scared of stepping out of line.”
Kimberly is on the outside looking in, and what she sees is couples watching true crime on Netflix while picking at their Uber Eats and scrolling through their phones. That’s the life she’ll give up everything to attain.
It’s this painful recognition that gives the play its sting, and the collision of detailed satire and the “absurdist sucker punches” Kimberly metes out are a speciality of Coyle’s. He started out with the trio Pig Island, where with fellow members Claudia O’Doherty and Charlie Garber he devised brilliantly weird, consistently uproarious sketches. Last year O’Doherty reunited with Coyle for his ABC web series Sarah’s Channel, playing a beauty vlogger in a bizarre post-apocalyptic world.
Like Kimberly, Coyle has been breaking theatre for years, and for all her anti-social tendencies he does harbour a strange kind of admiration for his creation. “She does do some psychopathic things. But she kind of represents a chaotic anarchy that we all have. Or maybe it’s just me and I am a psychopath, but I feel like there is a part of us all that wants to flip a table.”
The Feather in the Web is at Red Stitch Actors Theatre from January 29.