Frankie Meredith’s new play May Queen presents some difficulties. When I say difficult, I don’t mean hard-to-understand or obscure. I mean difficult as in hard-to-stomach, emotionally challenging, resistant. May Queen tends to be at its most successful when it presents us with difficulty, and at its least successful when it makes things too easy.
Let’s start with something that I think is difficult about the way that Meredith writes May Queen’s central themes of rape, rape culture, sexual assault and trauma, which is that she writes towards them rather than away from them. The story is not told in proxies or euphemism. Even the story’s hearty interaction with folklore and local histories is not used to replace, obscure or mythologise its episodes of sexual violence. The play’s protagonist and narrator, seventeen-year old May Queen Leigh (Yasmin Dawes) tells us directly what has happened, and opens up more and more about her past experiences across the ninety-minute monologue. Of course there are some moments of joy and levity early in the play to settle us into this world, and, later on, some brief moments of profound beauty that provide necessary relief, light and shade. But May Queen’s story is, necessarily, difficult, and more difficult still for the acuteness of Meredith’s descriptions and visceral power of Dawes’s performance.
Another context in which Meredith’s script presents a kind of resistance is in response to its commission as part of Coventry’s City of Culture programming for 2021. Part of what makes May Queen compelling comes from its specificity within Coventry itself: the street names of Leigh’s walk home map the play’s space onto Coventry’s own roads and pavements; competing versions of Coventry’s folkloric history lay claim to Leigh’s sense of the city’s psycho-geography (on which more later); landmarks such as the city council buildings receive detailed descriptions. These descriptions are rich, but not celebratory.
In fact, Leigh’s experience growing up in Coventry is a bleak one. Despite moments of joy and levity that ease us into Leigh’s world, and the character’s own resilience, the Coventry of May Queen is one defined by rape culture. Experiences of rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment thread throughout Leigh’s life, from her pre-teens to the play’s present (a post-COVID 2022), and encompass the actions of friends, strangers and institutional figures. Notably, there seems to be no or little institutional or social support for Leigh, no real ‘safe space’ with friends, family, parents, teachers or social workers. Every man in the play is portrayed as a threat of some kind – not just because Leigh perceives them as such, but because they behave in a way that is threatening. The starkness of this reality, together with the way that different forms of performance, spectacle and looking are linked in the play to rape culture, makes Meredith’s depiction feel uncompromising.
Coventry City Council are not, as far as I can tell, directly involved in the City of Culture programming, but would presumably have instigated the bid for the funding, as well as running many related aspects of civic infrastructure. I mention this because it is fair, if understating it, to say that Coventry City Council and its civic institutions in general do not come off well in May Queen. The council officer in charge of the May Day celebrations in which Leigh will feature is sleazy and shallow, and his interest in the celebration’s historical roots seems cynical, a PR exercise. He fetishises the virginal status of the ceremonial May Queen. (Meredith satirises this by repeating and examining the proxies that he uses to euphemise this: “pure, virtuous, maidenly!”) At the end of their first meeting, he slaps Leigh on her bottom. These aren’t artistic choices that feel like they would have been easy for Meredith or her producers at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in the context of their sponsorship.
Yet, there are parts of this plotline within the play that do feel too easy. In my experience, those involved in organising civic events, heritage projects and “folk festivals” as the May Day celebrations are called in the play, are deeply passionate, ideologically-driven people. It’s easy to think that something that’s been organised pretty shoddily by a smarmy salesman would also lack appropriate safeguarding and welfare support for its teenage participant. It’s harder to work through the reality that many women have attested to toxic and predatory behaviour around some much-celebrated and admired male performers and organisers in UK folk music, as highlighted by the BIT Collective’s #tradstandswithher campaign.
Further to that, the Coventry May Day event that Leigh describes itself sounds like a straw-man: whatever their complex politics, folk festivals don’t tend to be uncritical celebrations of “all things English”. It feels important to centre the narrative on Leigh’s experience, and in a monologue this will inevitably flatten the characters (and perhaps the events) that we only see through her perspective. But it does deny audiences the difficulty of being confronted by a character who is both predatory and caring (or competent or talented) in other ways.
Another way that May Queen presents us with difficulty is in its depiction of Leigh’s violent revenge fantasy against her many male aggressors. As a viewer, these sequences are emotionally compelling and visually transfixing. Balisha Karra’s direction and choreography of the on-stage fighting (not easy in a one-person show!) is jaw-dropping and underscored throughout by Meredith’s rhythmic writing and some intensely layered music and sound production. What feels difficult about these sequences is not their violence per se, but our complicity. The play refuses to condemn this violence. It doesn’t tell us whether it’s good or bad for Leigh, or good or bad in general, suspending our sense of right and wrong.
On its own terms, May Queen presents a moving, difficult and in many ways bleak narrative for theatre-goers. Those audience members affected by the issues raised are offered support and points of contact as they leave the theatre. In the play, however, it is notable how few avenues of support are apparent to Leigh, how few ways out. There are points of escape and escapism, sure, but these are either implausible violent fantasies or rooted in the solace of the natural world. No way is presented of her enacting or finding meaningful or permanent change.
In so many ways, May Queen is a difficult commission to stage and tour right now, offering its audiences little in the way of uplift. But it feels like it deserves critical attention, not least for its relationship to other plays about English folklore. Perhaps the most well-known and closely considered British play of the century so far is Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, which is seeing another West End revival next year, and has already found its way onto an exam board’s A-level syllabus. Like Jerusalem, May Queen is set on an English national holiday, its protagonist draws spiritual power from English legend, and it plays with the relationship between centre and periphery.
Whereas Johnny Byron in Jerusalem sits out of the St George’s Day festivities, drawing a motley crowd of participants and under-age drinkers around him, Leigh finds herself in the very centre of the May Day pageant. Johnny also traces his lineage back for several English generations, and knows his history – or claims to know it – through oral tradition. Leigh, on the other hand, has to seek Coventry’s history out on Wikipedia pages and chance encounters with snippets of local lore. Leigh’s apparent lack of agency as a young woman turns her from the subject of the May Day procession to the object, whereas Johnny can claim certain kinds of authority based only on his own testimony, even without official title or sanction.
I raise the comparisons with Jerusalem for two reasons. Firstly, to acknowledge another type of difficulty in writing into a space that has such an obvious and prominent antecedent. And secondly, because May Queen got me thinking more about Englishness and local history than other recent-ish plays that might be compared to Butterworth’s, like Mike Bartlett’s Albion.
As for its reception in the shorter term, whether audiences at this particular moment in history have an appetite for this kind of difficult, uncomfortable storytelling will be interesting to see.
May Queen is part of Paines Plough’s Roundabout, touring the UK until 17 October 2021.