This week I’ve been thinking a lot about Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again by Alice Birch. That breathless, spiralling final monologue, which begins ‘There is a point at which the thought is not enough. The thought can exist up here in my head or wherever we carry thoughts perhaps, perhaps it is closer to my heart or my guts or somewhere in my intestines but the thought can be the thing, the beautiful perfect thing, the thought can be the Entire World for as long as you are happy for it just to be the thought…’ But in my head I’ve been replacing ‘the thought’ with ‘the words’. ‘There is a point at which the words are not enough’. Meaning slips through metaphors, words can be weaponised, we fail to say what we mean. In fact, when you think about it, words seem a pretty inadequate tool for meaning making but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Theatre 503 commissioned ten writers, from emerging playwrights to theatre stalwarts April de Angelis and Richard Bean, to write short plays in response to the #metoo movement exploring ‘consent, power and the new normal’. The result is The Words Are Coming Now, a thought-provoking hour and a half of playlets and monologues, followed by curated post-show discussions with journalists and campaigners. The plays are slickly directed and performed by a strong ensemble cast.
Chris Bush’s piece, Speaking Freely (directed by Cressida Brown), which opens the programme, provides a fruitful frame for the project and explore the difficulties of what it means to speak out. Three women from different generations are having a chat about (we presume) the #metoo movement. ‘The point is that now we are speaking’, one of the women says and the other two agree. They also agree on ‘keeping the men out’ of the conversation (The Words Are Coming Now does not do this; it has 50-50 gender representation of playwrights). However, while the women maintain a relatively united front in their conversation, privately they disagree with each other, facing out under a spotlight to deliver their inner thoughts to the audience. There are intergenerational tensions: the youngest woman carves out ethical certainties, while the older woman suggests we need to acknowledge ‘degrees of seriousness’ – a sexist comment is not the same as a sexual assault.
Bush’s play raises qualms about the #metoo movement with a light touch, without discounting it as a project: the difficulty of maintaining nuance in 140/280 characters; the potential erasure of the activism of previous generations of women; how ‘speaking out’ can become performative, a pressure to share trauma that puts the burden for dealing with sexual harassment on women. Bush deftly captures anxieties that many feel in discussing these issues. Each of the characters discount their contributions: one worries she’s too straight, another worries she’s too rich, a third worries she only has a place at the table because she is a survivor of sexual violence. ‘Who really wants to hear from me?’ ‘I don’t know anything.’ Beyond imposter syndrome, these women seem to fear saying the wrong thing and causing offence or breaking solidarity. Bush’s play is a reminder that ‘The point is that now we are speaking’ is not enough; we need to ensure that these conversations are actual conversations that leave space for a variety of contributions.
The Words Are Coming Now holds open a space for such conversations and presents many different perspectives. However, about halfway through, I found myself wondering whether the short play form is the best form to capture nuance. It does not provide time for detailed, conflicting presentations of characters, for example, so the characters are not often more than their views. Instead of plot development, there is a reversal of expectations. These are generally plays of ideas. This does not mean that they are not entertaining. Richard Bean’s play Hotel du Vin provides a twist on hotel room sex between co-workers. She wants to get started but he wants her to sign a contract first to protect himself from allegations ‘in the current climate’. When she hears she’s been made a partner, he can’t get it up as they both get off on the power dynamic. For me, this scene came a bit too close to comment pieces misunderstanding and rubbishing consent – they’ll make us sign contracts next, what a mood killer! Deidan Williams’s play #SHHH_TIMETOLISTEN (directed by Chino Odimba) depicts an internet furore after a man brushes against a woman on a train. Characters communicate in terse tweets rather than speaking to each other. However, the piece is too easily resolved; split down the middle of the train carriage, the female characters snap pictures of the male characters and chorus ‘Time to listen’. What does it mean to listen? Who should they listen to?
Stand out pieces include Elise van Lil’s haunting monologue Flamingo (directed by Chino Odimba), performed by Amy Blair standing on one leg, and Amy Bethan Evan’s monologue To Be My Eyes (directed by Ailin Conant), and performed by Sarah Caltieri, about a character’s experience of a relationship as a partially-sighted person. I think I liked them so much because they were more oblique, finding metaphors instead of instantly presenting the audience with a point of view against which to measure ourselves.
Despite my frustrations with some of the plays, The Words Are Coming Now is a valuable project and is well programmed to keep the momentum of these conversations going, with the aim of generating cultural change in the theatre industry and beyond. Words might not be enough, but they’re a good start.
The Words Are Coming Now was on at Theatre503. More info here.