June 29, 2014, by Peter Kirwan
Midsummer Mischief (Royal Shakespeare Company) @ The Other Place at the Courtyard Theatre
At one point during a day of events forming the RSC’s Midsummer Mischief festival of new writing and vocal women, festival coordinator and RSC Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman expressed her frustration that professional critics have so far focused almost entirely on the wonderful strangeness – even the victory – of having a whole season of plays written and directed by women at the RSC, at the expense of engaging with what the plays and their characters were actually saying. The mere fact of women creating art, she suggested, was the headline, and the reporting of the fact has taken the place of critical engagement with the issues.
My frustration takes a slightly different tack. As delighted as I am to see the Courtyard Theatre open, and to be watching theatre in a makeshift studio space evoking the Cube erected in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 2006 that explicitly attempts to recapture the essence of the much-missed (and soon to be resurrected) The Other Place, the physical location and scale of this festival only highlighted the continuing marginalisation of women’s work. In the main house, plays directed, written and mostly by men draw the largest audiences in Stratford to hear stories about kings and soldiers in which women appear only as wives, servants or prostitutes. The smaller theatre hosts plays still written by men but directed by women, which feature large or provocative female roles. For work written by women, a small temporary studio space is directed. It’s a step in the right direction, but the more radical side of me would like to see this happening in the main house, displacing rather than sitting at the fringes of Shakespeare. If the celebration of women is to be a part of the RSC’s work, it will need more than temporary festivals and temporary spaces.
This, of course, should not detract from the fresh air that has rushed in to displace the cobwebs of the Courtyard. Even the foyer, with its chaotic decor, newspaper cuttings about Buzz Goodbody (whose feminism and communism were part of the festival’s inspirational provocation) and eclectic armchairs and sofas, felt like a deliberate attempt to foreground creativity as the RSC’s essential business. The centrepiece of the Midsummer Mischief festival was four new short plays, but more important for the purpose of this day was the opening up of a conversational space, bringing together artists and creatives to interrogate the implications of the new work for the prioritisation of feminism and radical politics in the modern theatre. As Whyman put it in her introduction to the day, the aim of Midsummer Mischief was to create something brave in response to the Roaring Girls season of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, and ensure that a feminist response to the gender politics raised by that season had an appropriate platform.
The concern expressed by Timberlake Wertenbaker, one of the four commissioned dramatists, in the opening plenary was not that work would be received badly, but that it would be silenced through being ignored, or through a lack of critical engagement; precisely the fear that Whyman herself articulated. It is fascinating, in that light, that the day began with responses. Nic Green, who created the significant Trilogy at the Barbican, situated her work as a response to her own background of imposter syndrome, ladette culture in the 90s and her own youthful explorations of what feminism might be. In explaining this I am, of course, conscious of the problems of mediation and reduction that necessarily plague any summary response, but what Green’s opening offered was, I believe, a perfect foregrounding of experience and individual voice as the key issue at stake. An early question asked whether the project of contemporary feminism demanded a unified voice and shared definition of feminism or a messy and potentially conflicting pluralism, and the cries I heard chimed strongly with my own preference for the latter.
The pressures and anxieties heard from the festival’s start were familiar and yet urgent. The Other Place’s purpose was to be a laboratory where, crucially, artists had the right to fail, and a similar call was made here for women. The pressures to succeed are also pressures to conform to expectation and style, and Nic’s work in particular demanded that women be able to explore and get it wrong. The pressure to talk about feminism and about women is also, in its very particular way, a restriction. To ghettoise these issues and to insist that the failure to address them explicitly is a betrayal was deeply felt. Questions of blame were articulated: some younger voices are angry at the older generation for not being rebellious enough; some want to remember; some feel that remembrance causes stagnation and the occlusion of new voices; some want to be kind to new generations of feminists; some hold them to more rigorous standards. But, as one audience member eloquently put it, to attack women for letting the side down when they exercise their right to free choice is perhaps one of the most insidious and difficult problems to overcome.
Among the anxiety was, however, joy. Feminism is characterised frequently as born of anger and depression, blame and bitterness, yet Whyman and her team of collaborators insisted on joy, mischief and playfulness being part of this project. Hannah Nicklin’s beautiful patchwork poem responded to the four plays by paying tribute to her mother, a former union activist involved in the Dartford tunnel picket lines. Interspersed with stories of the myth of Gaia and remembrances of her own past, Nicklin’s work repositioned the joyful, challenging, self-aware emotional response at the heart of Midsummer Mischief, and can be viewed online. Ewan Fernie’s subsequent response brought Shakespeare back into the debate, arguing that these four radical plays could also be used to retrospectively re-read Shakespeare’s own radical politics, picking out Helena’s musings on virginity in All’s Well that Ends Well as especially resonant with the issues raised by the festival. The problem with Shakespeare, of course, is that the plays were written within an entirely male-articulated performance situation, and Lesley Ferris drew attention to a shocking essay by Goethe arguing that the reason women could not, and should not, act is that they are too close to nature to be capable of creating art.
Whyman’s project was to bridge the gap between the Roaring Girls of Renaissance London and today’s roaring girls. In a provocative, funny and emotional platform discussion entitled ‘Roaring Girls Today’, Whyman asked Stella Creasy MP, the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Caroline Criado-Perez, the campaigner who received death threats for her work getting a woman onto an English banknote, to reflect on the issues of being a woman in the public sphere. To try to summarise the wide-ranging talk is to do it a disservice, but key for me were the warnings against a false sense of progress or superiority; the calls for men to take responsibility for acting against misogyny rather than expecting applause for not being misogynists; the violent, varied and kneejerk strategies deployed against women in public to enforce silence; and the loneliness experienced by the woman who speaks out. As a male lecturer who uses my own teaching platform to draw attention to gender inequities and feminist concerns, one of the things that saddens me is the knowledge that, unlike the women in this panel, I am unlikely to encounter violent, aggressive or accusatory backlash for talking about misogyny. If I had to boil down today to one take-home message, it would be the reinforcing of my belief, sometimes less successfully realised than others, that whatever limited platform I enjoy needs to enable or draw attention to, rather than substitute for, other voices. Please follow the links throughout this blog to see these women speak for themselves.
In reviewing the Midsummer Mischief plays, which were split into two programmes performed an ensemble of six, I am giving my own take on and understanding of the values and aims of these plays. Yet what emerged clearly from the post-show discussion was the number of varied and visceral reactions to what had been seen and heard. I’m not convinced that we talk enough about this; while as a critic I can only speak authoritatively of my own response, I’m not sure that any number of disclaimers attached to a piece of writing articulate strongly enough that this can only be a partial, biased, personal take that should not take priority over anyone else’s; especially when, as a male audience member at this Festival, I was already in a minority. In returning to Whyman’s comments with which I began, I cannot contribute to discourse by staying silent, but I hope that many more people will be writing, reacting, responding to the provocations that this important festival initiated.
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Ant and The Cicada was the most middle-class and formally conventional of the four plays, and the only one to use the full ensemble. At its heart sat a debate between two different world views, articulated by sisters who had jointly inherited an estate in Greece. Julie Legrand’s Zoe was an artist crippled by unpaid taxes and living in the crumbling estate. Careless of practical matters, she hosted Golden Dawn meetings in order to get protection against tax collectors; created performance art with her daughter and students arguing for renewed democracy; and revelled in her age and sexuality. Her decade-younger sister Selina (Ruth Gemmell) was a pragmatic marketing executive, bringing frustration at her older sister’s ‘art’ and a financial solution to the family’s woes in the shape of John Bowe’s Alex, who planned to develop the estate into an international conference centre.
Whyman’s efficient direction was designed to stage the debates as efficiently as possible, with a raised platform setting up a simple spatial dynamic in which the key speaker always took centre stage. The initial situation saw Zoe asked to sign a contract stripping her of her rights over the estate while tipsy and oblivious, only belatedly realising the consequences. Wertenbaker kept the balance careful, suggesting that Zoe’s self-indulgence had led to both physical and moral dilapidation, but the play’s sympathies clearly lay with her. Gemmell played Selina as tired, short-tempered, channelling a lifetime’s resentment into pragmatic fixes and tirades against her sister’s art, but Legrand held centre stage, flirting with Alex and dismissing the world with pleasing abandon.
This play’s feminism was not so much in its content – Wertenbaker’s concerns here were with politics – but in the gift of three extraordinary female roles responsible for articulating the state of the world. Selina spoke for compromise, for accepting the world and its horrors and trying to save what one can within the system. But Zoe dominated with a tour de force sermon against Alex’s economics. She inveighed against the dehumanising of people, turning art into creative industry and subordinating democracy to the demands of a free market. While the local Greek situation provided the context, Zoe became a locus for anger against a world that preserves its capital by co opting and occupying the terms in which the world can be articulated.
The play’s final act, a performance piece performed by Zoe and her students, was more contrived and not entirely successful, despite Mimi Ndiweni’s grandstanding performance as Zoe’s daughter Irina, performing the folk-historical figure Bouboulina. Using cards distributed among the audience, Bouboulina reconstructed a satirical world portrait of economists, philosophers and oligarchs, and brought Alex and Selina onstage to be held at gunpoint until they returned the signed contract. Ending on the promise of a gunshot, the literal drama of the play was melodramatic, but the point tied importantly into one raised earlier by Fernie – how violent can one get in pursuit of a principle; how radical should our action be? The importance of the shift here was from the world of talking in which Alex’s language dominated the rules of discourse to a world of action where the dangerous potential of the performance artists offered a microcosm of revolution. The handing over to the audience of the role of Greek chorus (ordered to default, when at a loss, to the mantra ‘we are all Greeks’) acted as a deliberate call to action and ethical change, but the device felt to me to simply illustrate and reinforce a system of observance rather than suggest practical steps to change.
In launching the programme, Wertenbaker’s play opened up the big questions, painting in microcosm the issues when a privileged minority who understand the language of economics offer to solve the world’s problems conditionally and with primary regard to self-interest. In aligning Zoe’s interest in mythology and history with violent counter action, the play offered a simplistic yet productive opposition between a spiritual resistance and a pragmatic, impersonal system. Yet the implicit critique of Zoe herself for her disengagement from the world and the derelict state into which the estate in her care had fallen suggested to me a warning for the radical left that inaction among the conscientious is almost as big a crime as the pursuit of capitalism. Ignoring the world is not an effective mode of resistance.
Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., by contrast, offered a very explicit programme for change through the captions projected on the back wall during scenes:
REVOLUTIONIZE THE LANGUAGE. (INVERT IT).
REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORLD. (DO NOT MARRY).
REVOLUTIONIZE THE BODY. (MAKE IT SEXUALLY AVAILABLE. CONSTANTLY).
REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORK. (ENGAGE WITH IT).
REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORK. (DON’T DO IT).
And so on. As the latter two suggest, the slogans were deliberately contradictory at times, suggesting a range of programmes for reform with the shard goal of challenging implied norms. The scenes illustrated situations: respectively for the above examples, a young girl turning round the ‘dirty talk’ of her boyfriend onto him until he was deflated and humiliated; a woman laughing off her boyfriend’s marriage proposal; a woman being taken to task for exposing herself in a supermarket; a woman being grilled by her boss for demanding an extra day off each week for herself; a grandmother demanding her daughter perform chores she was incapable of. Few characters were named; scenes bore no narrative relation to one another. Whyman’s sparse direction saw the four actors sitting in a line on four chairs, moving in and out of each scene as needed, ensuring that each scene was read as the working through of a situation.
This was the most challenging of the four plays. At times it was hysterical – the screaming ecstasy of Ndiweni as she imagined taking her vagina and engulfing her boyfriend was complemented perfectly by the bewildered discomfort of the hitherto cocky Robert Boulter, and Birch’s script frequently blurred the lines between a character unsure of how to handle an unusual situation and an actor forgetting their lines. This device aimed to keep the audience on edge, creating the illusion that the play itself might fall into chaos at any point. Characters repeated themselves, talked over one another, threw out truisms and weak defences, exposing the problems inherent in assumed modes of behaviour. The play refused, deliberately, to behave.
Yet it also aimed to unsettle and upset. The third slogan above accompanied a scene in which a woman spoke, eloquently and at length, about the extent of the self-mutilations, behavioural strategies and protective devices she had employed unsuccessfully in order to avoid being repeatedly raped. The conclusion she came to was to want sex constantly with anyone who wanted, as her choice to give her body meant that it could never be taken. Gemmell’s delivery of this extraordinarily difficult monologue, delivered in tired deadpan, spoke volumes about the issues of false choice, about the defeats implicit in victories, about the acceptance of horror in order to avoid worse horror. In a beautiful moment, a victim of the consequence of the slogan that illustrated her scene showed the human impact of an ideological position.
Birch’s play was angry in many senses, but perhaps especially at itself. In the final scene, in which the four actors overlapped in a series of conflicts, jokes and dialogues while destroying the stage, Scarlett Brookes attempted to make herself heard about something that she had been thinking. Around her, there were rape jokes, a woman declaring herself the happiest she had ever been after pouring a bucket of water over herself, a policeman refusing to accept evidence for a burglary/rape despite the blood and debris. As Brookes finally achieved silence, she explained her thought – that the world had made a mistake, that kindness and hope were no longer enough. The final dialogue between the three female actors, concluding with the necessity to eradicate all men, was followed by these closing words (from the script):
– You sound sad.
– I am sad.
– It won’t work if you’re sad.
– It won’t work if you aren’t. It failed. The whole world failed at it. It could have been so brilliant. How strange of you not to feel sad. Who knew that life could be so awful.
Despite the small victories won in certain vignettes, the company’s overall statement here was one of desperation. Behaviours are too ingrained, victories won at too high a cost. The concluding strategy to dismantle all systems and destroy all men contained no note of pleasure or satisfaction. At a less abstracted level, the longest sustained scene – as a mother screamed in turn at her own mother to know why she had been abandoned in order that she might not destroy the life of her own daughter – suggested cycles of regret and repetition, thwarted hopes for change. In the post-show talk the play was described by the creative team as angry; I would characterise it rather as proactively sad. This was the play that most chimed with the discussion of loneliness in the ‘Roaring Girls Today’ talk, the play that recognised the emotional consequences of resistance and embraced the pain without martyrdom.
The director of Programme B, Jo McInnes, characterised E.V. Crowe’s I Can Hear You as a form of naturalism. Inasfar as it established a domestic situation and explored the inability effectively to express emotion, this has some legs. Yet what the ensemble created here was a sad black comedy, set around a funeral in which Gemmell’s tight-lipped, angry Ruth managed her father (Bowe) and sister-in-law Sandra (Ndiweni) in the organisation of a memorial for her brother Tommy that would, to some extent, assuage the guilt she felt over a rushed memorial for her more distantly passed mother. Sandra’s recruitment of a young spiritualist (Brookes) had the somewhat unexpected effect of bringing back Tommy (Boulter) as a very physical poltergeist, prompting the family to try also to reach Ruth’s mother.
In the discussion after the show, an audience member explained how unrelatable she had found Ruth, prompting an eloquent response by Crowe herself about the absolute necessity of creating women who aren’t sanitised, emotionally perfect or necessarily likeable. I was delighted to hear this, as Gemmell’s Ruth was a wonderful character, channelling her grief into noisy banging of chairs and aggressive allocation of plate settings, as well as passive aggressive treatment of her nervous sister-in-law. It became apparent quickly that this play was about Ruth’s relationship with and remembrance of her mother, and in a moving moment the spiritualist, Ellie, chastised the family for having been unable to find any artefacts that meaningfully connected their mother to the world in a way that would make the seance successful. The mother, it transpired, had been valued for her background presence, but it seemed as if no one in the family had really known her. In a heartbreaking moment, made so by the fact only the father and spiritualist saw it, the pendulum Ellie held swung clearly to the right – indicating that the dead mother had no desire to return or speak with her family.
The comedy came from Boulter’s energetic performance as a sarcastic, irreverent ghost, overturning tables and demanding that his father show him the football scores. Tommy’s belligerence and cruel jokes partly raised the question of why anyone would want to bring back the dead, but also drew attention to the family’s stronger, physical connection to a young man than to the woman who had held them together. The absence even of any pictures of her suggested a memory already partly faded, a memory that haunted Ruth as she herself realised that she may never be able to have children.
Fernie’s talk suggested reminiscences of Hamlet within this play, most obviously in the visitation of a Ghost – even if here the Ghost was more interested in football than in revenge. Both shared a concern with remembrance, which in Crowe’s play was reiterated and distributed throughout the cast, down to the extended passages remembering the old Woolworths in which Ellie had worked before she set up her crystal shop in its abandoned shell. Brookes was excellent as the ethereal ‘hipster’ Ellie, accidentally but pointedly misbehaving as she asked searching questions of the grieving family, interacted far too familiarly and told Ruth that she had a ‘blockage’. For me, the skill here was in Ruth’s outragedly British reactions to what she perceived as rudeness, falling back on procedure, etiquette and screams at closed doors. Yet as even Ruth allowed herself to believe that she may get to see – and confront – her mother, the cracks began to show.
The ludicrous familiarity with which Tommy once more joined the grieving family at the play’s close as Ruth scrabbled for the lost crystal which she had come to associate with her mother brought home another key theme of the festival, that of missed opportunities. Once more, inaction had led to decay and irretrievable loss. Tommy’s casual, callous presence, a result of the massive investment in his death, would be an ongoing reminder of the invisible and committedly absent mother.
Abi Zakarian’s This Is Not an Exit was the shortest and most surreal of the plays, and once more focused on Gemmell as a central, struggling female figure. Here, Nora was a magazine writer in her forties struggling to work out her life. She was confronted, even assailed, by three other women: her mother Blanche (Legrand), a former activist who critiqued her daughter’s domestic skills; a scouse lifestyle trainer called Gulch (Brookes) who ordered Nora to find her inner lioness; Ripley (Ndiweni), a dancing caricature of girls’ mags’ readers, who criticised Nora’s make-up and tried to sort out her hair.
Taking place in one claustrophobic flat, Nora’s story was a battle against the conflicting and contradictory demands made on modern woman. As parenthood, self-possession and image all roared their demands, Zakarian’s script made clear that no one woman could possibly meet all of the expectations put upon her. Perhaps the most evocative aspect of this was the idea that the writer of the inspirational and retweeted Buzzfeed list could herself be a mess of insecurity; this was a media culture in which women concentrated on giving others pressurised advice rather than look to their own desires and needs, and where the validation of others came with the expectation to conform to impossible demands.
The caricatures of pressures were deliciously funny and demonically caricatured. Brookes’s strained (from the perspective of a native) scouse accent, precarious heels and inability to smile beyond an evil grimace embodied the aggressive, take-it-all messages that exhausted Nora and left her a quivering wreck. Ndiweni’s inexhaustible Ripley, meanwhile, shook her backside in Nora’s face, talking non-stop about products, image, social media and gossip. The self-possession of both came at the cost of empathy or understanding, and their voices combined and overlapped to make Nora’s own protests inaudible.
By contrast, Blanche’s quiet, no-nonsense attitude and concern for Nora put the onus back on Nora to make a connection. Once more, the ambivalent relationship to the mother figure was foregrounded, as Nora created lists about ‘Why Mother Knows Best’ while rejecting (the memory of) her own mother. The moving and uplifting conclusion was Nora’s memory of being wrapped up as a child in an androgynous winter coat and being mistaken for a boy, a mistake which neither she nor her mother corrected. The memory, coming after a demonstration of gendered expectations, was one of liberation from those expectations, of playing and dancing and singing in freedom from constraint. Everything else, as Nora said while tapping her keyboard, was to be deleted.
Midsummer Mischief offered few answers, but lots of questions. Seen in this order, the questions asked became more personal, though this arguably complicates the question of how to act – by dismantling governments and structures, or by individual acts of resistance against personal emotional, physical or social assault? It’s tempting to argue that the overall statement was for the integration of macro- and micro-politics in creating voices, but it seems counter to the event’s ethos to suggest that there was any one message; and Revolt explicitly set up contradictory messages even within itself. What is important is that the return of The Other Place opens up a playful and political space to ask these questions and to ensure that voices are heard. One must hope that these questions continue to be asked, and that audiences continue to respond.