First up, a grovelling apology. Most of the plays I talk about in this essay are over. You can’t go and see them – I’m either cruelly feeding your FOMO or, alternatively, I’m offering a valuable service of reportage, depending how you look at it.
Caroline Horton started her latest solo show All of Me with a string of such grovelling apologies, yelled straight at the audience. She apologised for breaking apart the linear, conventional show she’d originally planned to make, and for the bout of depression that made sewing up a neat narrative impossible.
Is apologising for not meeting expectations a gendered thing? Christ knows. I spend half my life railing against gender essentialism and the clumsy generalisations it leads us to, and the other half as a human-being-with-eyes-and-ears who hence sees the vast structural differences that shape us. Talking about gender and feminism is HARD, especially when you want to leave space for queerness and subtleties and for playwrights to call themselves playwrights, not women playwrights. But yesterday, Victoria Sadler’s 2019 report on the gender imbalances of playwrights being staged made everything seem stark, suddenly. And yes, that’s partly a question of the theatres she’s looking at; the biggest ones, the ones that have a perceived duty to revive canonical works; new writing venues Royal Court, Bush and (after a sharp U-turn) Hampstead come out best. But there’s still an unignorable disparity here. And what I wonder is; does the pressure on representation shift the work that women playwrights make, and how it gets made?
There’s been a recent strand of large-scale feminist metatheatrical shows that carefully engage with what their audience’s expectations; most shiningly, Laura Wade’s The Watsons and Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison. They’re the opposite of the pub bore that launches into a unrequested monologue about pension consolidation or bin collections. They’re endlessly self aware, joyfully crowdpleasing, attuned to their audiences expectations, and ready to lift the curtain on what it means to be an author – as conversations about ‘who gets to write plays?’ simmer both inside and outside theatres’ walls.
Admittedly, there’s nothing in the least apologetic about the giant golden phallus that Lucy Prebble plonks in the middle of the stage A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic (over now, sorry, let’s start the petition for a West End transfer here). The teenagers sitting around me are splitting their sides laughing. As they should be. Adults who don’t find this funny have frankly jettisoned too much on their journey to maturity. I’ve seen teenage hysterics at the theatre before, but it’s generally had this quality of “ooh, something’s shaken me out of boredom and I’m going to laugh at it with contextless glee, for slightly longer than I’m allowed to”. Prebble’s storytelling style is different; she makes the story of Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning hugely inclusive instead of distancing. It’s like a massive gleaming car pulling up and its suave driver saying “get in, we’re going for a ride”; but instead of a James Bond-style spy adventure, it takes you behind the scenes, dismantles the car from within. John Crowley’s production has parts that slide smoothly over each other, like the scenery for a theme-park ride. Actors step to the front of the stage and tell you what you need to know. The political bits are made broad with giant Spitting Image-style puppets. It feels like a hospital drama or a poetic love story or a political thriller or a dark fairytale (okay, they’re fine in small doses).
Something so self-conscious, so strange, shouldn’t feel as expansively welcoming as this all does. But A Very Expensive Poison proves that you can be form-breaking and populist all at once. Metatheatricality lets you make jokes about the toilets and the ticket prices and the whole unspoken machinery of theatre; stuff that newcomers (like those giggling teenagers) are hyper aware of, but old hands take for granted. And more than that, something about the current mood of feminist anger makes ambiguity feel fraught, and ‘on the nose’ an outmoded criticism. Revived at the National Theatre, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls felt both powerful and like the product of another time/mood; it lays its two halves side by side on stage and let an audience draw its own conclusions.
Prebble owns her rabble-rousing populism by styling it as a device; one that shows how Putin can bamboozle his political opponents with macho glitz and bravado. The play ends in a moment of dispute about who gets to have the mic, who’s in charge of the spectacle. Marina Litvinenko comes face to face with Putin, the man who probably murdered her husband – or at least, presided over an intelligence system that caused his poisoning. “I’m sorry for your loss”, he says. It means nothing. He’s just trying to control the narrative, as he has throughout the play; popping up like a blustering television presenter or mayoral candidate, ready to assure the audience that what they’re seeing is lies. The only way for him to be defeated is for his artifice to be revealed, for the tricks that are layered through the show to be punctured. Marina takes the mic, tells the audience she’s an actor, and then tells the truth straight out to the audience.
It’s a moment of frame-breaking truthtelling that’s paralleled in The Watsons. Laura Wade’s play is meant to be adapting and completing an abandoned Jane Austen novel, but its author can’t stay behind the scenes. First she just observes the characters she’s taken on, and then she takes the rare step of writing herself (or a version of herself) into the story, as an author who tries to take the reins as they wriggle out of the narrative she planned for them. Her characters become so wayward that they encapsulate her imposter’s syndrome. “Call yourself a writer?” says Emma, her 19-year-old protagonist. Then Laura exposes the conditions she’s writing under; the kids clamouring at the door, the calls from a thinly-veiled version of the Menier’s artistic director, the near-unbearable pressure. “People have bought tickets. For money. This is torture…. I can’t do it I can’t do it I can’t”.
Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia is full of the same openness about what it means to be a female writer; but it’s channelled into feminist rage. The female poet protagonist of the story mingles with the groundlings at the Globe (where the play premiered) and then challenges Shakespeare to acknowledge the discrimination that silences her voice; “Will? Why can I not do as you do?” He deflects the question, of course. “What would you have me do? Down tools? Refuse to write unless women are also given the same freedoms?” He goes off to drink sparkling water with his theatre mates but he’s been fatally skewered here. It’s a moment that finds a darker echo in Ella Hickson’s The Writer. The play felt like a direct conversation with the theatre it played in, its biting lines about gender and power aimed directly at the Almeida director who appeared, in proxy form, right on the theatre’s stage.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote those lines in 1968, before a wave of truth-telling where women exposed and revealed the ‘invisible’ labour and harassment embedded in their daily lives. But translate that phrase to theatre, and it holds; when female playwrights acknowledge the conditions they make work in, it shakes the theatre to its foundations.
Metatheatricality is nothing new, of course; it’s been a part of theatre from its very start, from Ancient Greek dramas through to Ibsen and Brecht and Shaffer and yes, Pirandello.
But its use as a way of breaking apart power structures feels like a much more recent development. Henry Hwang and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins have both used metatheatricality to place an interrogative frame around the way people of colour were written in old texts (M. Butterfly and An Octoroon); a powerful way of dramatising the troubled relationship between theatre’s past and present.
In Maddy Costa’s fascinating pulse-taking of The Well-Made Play, Ella Hickson says that the tightly-structured form that defines much of theatre’s 20th century history “has been a patriarchal construct for a very long time: there’s a man at the centre doing things to make that man feel powerful and domineering. It’s a singular character in pursuit of a desire and something is stopping him getting that desire: that is capitalist.” Costa follows Hickson’s quote with a note of caution, saying that “this isn’t about gender: it’s about systems of power”, which is true; but it’s also notable that it’s primarily women and people of colour who are writing plays that break things apart, using new forms to dig into old hierarchies. Formal experimentation and metatheatricality can be a powerful way of opposing theatre’s status quo; of challenging racism and sexism, of making invisible things visible.
But perhaps there’s a kind of inbuilt irony to these plays, to the way that they’re using the prestige of well-established stages and traditional forms (writer, director, actor) to question what those things mean, to dismantle the value systems we’ve attached to them.
But haven’t we had these conversations already, in different places and in different forms? In fringe festivals everywhere there are so many devised and live art shows which talk with powerful honesty, which respond to the audience, which make room for the possibility of mess and surprise and disaster. For all its moments of audience interaction, A Very Expensive Poison also had a large and shiny mechanical set that would probably crush any cat that unwisely wandered across its floor. Does experimental theatre have to have stun audiences with elaborate production values to make it to big stages? I hope not – the subtler, more opaque exceptions shine, like Selina Thompson’s Salt and The Team’s RooseVelvis at the Royal Court, or and Forced Entertainment’s Out of Order at Southbank Centre.
We’re in an interesting cultural moment, one where there’s more focus that ever before about who’s telling the stories, and what that means. Social media has lifted the curtain on the previously-hidden discussions about what gets programmed, and has made what used to be a hidden autocracy into something more democratic, but also more fraught. Artists who speak out about structural inequalities of gender and class are in a funny position; their posts get a huge amount of traction, but they also risk alienating the people-in-charge their careers rely on. Victoria Sadler opens her 2019 gender count with the lines; “Hello ostracism, my old friend/ I’ve come to talk to you again…”
When new plays by British female playwrights so rarely get an airing, when they’re counted annually, when they’re under pressure to prove themselves commercially viable and artistically shining all at once… it’s no wonder that they start to fragment into metatheatricality, creating prism-like structures that reflect the pressures they’re under.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, says Caroline Horton at the opening of All of Me. But those words are misleading, written on the page. Hear them, and you’ll know that she’s totally furious.