Linda Griffiths’ play, Age of Arousal, here staged by Scotland’s foremost women’s theatre group Stellar Quines, raises relevant and poignant points regarding the topic of female emancipation, addressing the issue of women’s place in the world in a surprisingly fresh way.
The play is ‘wildly’ inspired by George Gissing’s 1893 novel, The Odd Women, is set in 1885, a period where, due to numerous social factors, women were in excess and those left over when the others had paired off were rendered redundant. The play follows the stories of five of these ‘pointless’ women and explores their fears regarding their futures.
Mary Barfoot, a former militant suffragette, is well versed in the plight of these women, so she establishes a secretarial school, teaching typing and feminist doctrine to single women as a means to give them financial independence – and, with it, freedom. Her relationship with her adoring young protégé Rhoda is tested when three single, destitute women, are taken in for training.
Older spinster sisters Alice and Virgina, are both familiar types, one a chaste and sexually conservative ‘surplus unmarried’ woman, the other a depressed alcoholic who finds liberation through toying with the gender divide. Along with their provocative and sexually aware younger sister Monica, the women all start to question their roles in a society where they are not valued.
Muriel Romanes’ minimal, stripped-back staging is exposing and stark. With only a screen onto which scene titles are typed, and only sparse props and furniture, the production has a neat and intimate feel. Griffiths’ writing fuses modern vernacular with more archaic language to create a sense of timelessness. The costumes are equally telling; the use of the cumbersome bustle and the restrictive, yet sexually infused, corset perfectly accompany the themes of female emancipation. Yet, at times this contemporary twist upon the fashion of the period seems overstated; a woman in a skirt composed – literally – of a cage, later sheds this to reveal masculine trousers, a device that appears overly symbolic and more than a little didactic. The performances are, however, excellent all round, especially Ann Louise Ross as Mary and Alexandra Mathie as Alice, who both get to deliver striking interior monologues.
Ideas of sexuality and gender, as culturally embedded as they are, are usually best shown subtly, as facets of characters, rather than as a subject standing alone and exposed. Yet Romanes’ production balances the discussion of gender with the development of character and the result is both potent ad relevant. It makes its audience appreciate just how much the suffragettes’ message still chimes with modern feminine angst and demonstrates the continued vitality of feminist thought, striking out at the notion of feminism as a relic of yesterday.