“I think we stepped on our anger, for a time, and I’m glad it’s back. Anger is one of the things that fuels me wonderfully.” In playwright Bryony Lavery’s low, soft, ever-so-slightly regal tones, these words sound most satisfying. She’s currently joining Agatha Christie and Susan Hill as one of the only female playwrights whose work is on at a West End theatre’s main stage: Frozen, on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. When she first wrote it in 1998, originally for the Birmingham Rep, new plays by women were rarely staged in big theatres, and depressingly, that’s still true.
A profile by Lyn Gardner, written two years later in 2000, characterised Lavery’s career up until then: “quietly writing for women’s companies, children, the radio and those areas that never merit more than a paragraph in most books about the British stage.” The term ‘women’s companies’ feels like something from another age, almost. But I venture to Lavery that after growing up in a time (the late ’90s and ’00s) where everybody seemed to see such things as old-fashioned, no longer necessary, we’re getting back to the time where all-female companies are gaining strength again: like Hoxton Hall’s Female Parts season, like Bossy collective’s bid to buy a West End space. “On a wave of anger at the slowness of getting parity in everything, I think, don’t you?” says Lavery. “It’s so odd, it’s interesting who was the ‘everybody’ you mentioned. I think it’s a time where if you had one woman on a board, you’d somehow answered ‘the women question’ and we just got a bit careless about our vigilance in insisting we are half the world”.
It’s a strong reminder that rights aren’t a battle to be won, commemorated, and forgotten: they’re a continuous struggle, and progress will be eroded, again and again, unless successive generations keep pushing. And that cultural perceptions of what’s relevant and artistically interesting are likely shaped by a tiny minority of powerful (white, cis, middle class) men.
Lavery mentions her recent trip to New York, where she’s currently co-writing a play called Balls, an exploration of gender inequality in sport that centres on the famous 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match. She says “while I was there I had a lovely meal with Michael Grandage and he was saying that he thinks everybody in theatre is there and does their job out of anger.”
It sounds like Lavery’s early career was definitely motivated by that kind of sense of purpose. She explains that she wrote Her Aching Heart “way back in the day when I did see my job as providing lots of great female roles, which I sometimes still do. There’s a lot to redress.” Recently revived at Hope Theatre, Her Aching Heart is a lesbian romance that’s spirited and wonderfully fanciful, poking fun at the gendered tropes of romantic fiction.
The same-sex romance of Her Aching Heart was a necessity given the group’s all-female cast, but Lavery adds that “it seems sexier as well, than the typical one of the male hero, the winsome lass falling for him”. She wrote it for Women’s Theatre Group, founded in 1973 (more info on the excellent Unfinished Histories alternative theatre project) – a group whose manifesto aims were to involve women in every corner of theatre production, to provide a platform for new female writers, and “To positively discriminate in favour of Black women and Lesbians.”
Lavery recalls that “it was then run by Clare Grove, who is now sadly dead – she went into radio, she was a wonderful radio producer. We were talking about what we might do together and she said ‘Oh, I’ve got to do something about gender, I don’t suppose you fancy that?’ And I said, ‘Oh no it sounds a bit dull’, and we were both talking about our love of romantic fiction, and we suddenly realised it was one and the same thing, that we could have a tremendously silly time but look at gender, at heroines, and love, and all that sort of stuff.”
Since then there’s been quite a mainstream interest in reimagining romantic historical tropes from a lesbian perspective – to the point where it’s rather rare to see lesbian-themed works that don’t have a tongue-in-cheek historical setting: especially Tipping the Velvet, but also Oranges and Elephants (Exeunt review here) and Fine and Dandy, on at Arcola Theatre this week.
“Ah well sorry, after Her Aching Heart… they owe it all to me” says Lavery, with her characteristic drollness. “I am deeply ancient of course”.
She’s not ancient. But at 69, her mainstream success came late in her career – as she entered her ‘50s. Where her early plays often used all-female casts, her later plays developed into explorations of male-dominated worlds: like Kursk at the Young Vic, set on a submarine, or Beautiful Burnout, set at a boxing ring. Kursk is thoroughly bleak, but it also has an unexpected gentleness which was inspired, in part, by Lavery’s visit to a submarine. “It confounds all your expectations – it’s much more domestic, and much more untidy.”
Frozen is a story of women’s lives destroyed by male violence that could, in the context of the current mood of female anger, be read as a protest. But Lavery says the play wasn’t motivated by anger:
“I had been reading and seeing a lot of books and films about devilishly clever serial murderers. And I thought, that’s not true. Murdering people is one of the most banal things you can do, it’s not smart, it’s not clever. And then I watched something about the Moors murders. And one of the famous things one of [the bereaved parents] said is: I’m a forgiving woman but I can’t forgive that. And I thought, well, you’re not that forgiving are you? They seemed to be stuck, and so I wanted to explore the notion of forgiveness and revenge. And around that time my mother died as a result of a botched-up piece of NHS carelessness and I had something to forgive, and I utterly forgave that. But there were other things my life I didn’t forgive. So essentially, the short answer to that is that wasn’t anger, it was grief and the notion of forgiving people – mostly forgiveness I think.”
Frozen is soaked in grief: it follows a mother, who loses her child to a paedophilic serial killer. And a female psychologist, who’s making a study of serial killers’ early experiences, while mourning the death her research partner. These are two wonderfully rich parts for women, conflicted and complex – if Lavery’s no longer writing for all-female companies, she’s still carrying their banner forward. Their explorations of forgiveness are interspersed with insights into the mind of serial killer Ralph, who can’t feel any remorse or grief for his crimes at all, who seems incapable of empathy, for understanding that his victims suffered. He’s not a genius – he’s a sad, pathetic man, warped, it emerges, by the abuse meted out to him in childhood by his own stepfather.
Lavery’s study in grief and compassion has been lovingly resurrected in a new West End production, and it’s a powerful watch (although the production sat oddly with me, with its reliance on easy devices: a small girl on stage, the sound of child’s laughter). And, simultaneously, her new show Brighton Rock has opened, to an even more enthusiastic response than her 1998 hit. “Someone asked – what are the similarities. And I said, there are no similarities. At all. Well it is about a sociopath, somebody who’s done a murder, but of course I’m the second writer on Brighton Rock, it’s really Graham Greene’s.”
Accepting a WhatsOnStage award for her performance as Gertrude, Juliet Stevenson said: “what I want is great parts for women, not women playing great parts for men. Although it’s fun to play [what is] traditionally a man’s role those plays are written about men and by a man – and that’s fantastic, they’re brilliant, genius plays – but what we need is more plays about the female experience.”
Lavery’s career has thrown up both. In Brighton Rock, she’s turned a male-dominated story into one that’s got a cast that’s evenly split between men and women. “I do find it very interesting when there’s cross-gender casting because I watch it through two filters. Because there’s behaviour, and then there’s gender behaviour, and they’re not necessarily the same.”
She talks about watching rehearsals for Brighton Rock, where “they were doing movement and assuming different characters and it’s really interesting, you just sometimes know who’s a man and who’s a woman even if the man is played by a woman, just because of their body language. I found that completely enthralling, and one of the virtues of stage rather than radio or film or TV.” Yes, as Stevenson says, there’s room for more plays about female experience, and maybe a return to female-led companies, like The Women’s Group, which self-organise outside existing structures will help nurture that. But there’s also something very exciting about taking on the challenge of playing with gender, within this distinctively 21st century mood of playfulness and experimentation – one which will hopefully make more room for actors who don’t fit the tightly stereotyped moulds of gender presentation.
Hailey Bachrach’s recent blog The Lady Canon showed that women are still only allowed to play some men: peripheral men, men who show weakness and jealousy, men who aren’t inconveniently entangled in relationships with women, that risk becoming queered. With enough female anger, maybe the whole canon will come tumbling down.
Frozen is on at Theatre Royal Haymarket. Book tickets here. Brighton Rock is on at York Theatre Royal until 3rd March before touring to Brighton, Colchester, Hull, and other venues nationwide: full info here.