Rufus Norris is hosting a dinner party to celebrate the opening of Lyndsey Turner’s production of Top Girls. He has unfortunately forgotten to invite any women. The dinner party guests’ lines (all taken from reviews or public statements) overlap and interrupt each other.
Rufus Norris: ‘The next four productions to open at the National Theatre are all written by women.’
Henry Hitchings: ‘What do women give up in order to be successful?’
Andrzej Lukowski: ‘This widescreen revival feels like vindication at last…It’s Top Girls, given the production it always deserved.’
Michael Billington: ‘this is the best British play ever from a woman dramatist.’
RN: ‘women’s voices will dominate our stages for the first time in the National Theatre’s history’
Dominic Cavendish: ‘The country is experiencing the greatest political crisis in a generation – some even say since Suez. And what is the National, our primary theatrical debating chamber, serving up?’
David Benedict: ‘No other playwright has so vividly dramatized the core feminist principle that the personal is political.’
DC: ‘an absorbing but hardly exhilarating and on-the-button museum piece.’
RN: ‘We are making substantial progress by staging more new work and revivals by women in all our theatres’
MB: ‘much as I love Churchill’s play, a big theatre and an epic cast do it few favours…at times it seems as if we’re watching three separate plays.’
DB: ‘The question is whether or not something so time-specific can still speak to contemporary audiences.’
AL: ‘The play was very explicitly written in the Thatcher era, but I don’t think these questions have dated.’
HH: ‘Top Girls is an argument for compassion and a sharp look at social inequality, demanding a place at the table for women of all backgrounds.’
RN: ‘By 2021, 50% of the work we stage by living writers will be written by women and 50% of all productions will be written by women.’
Lyndsey Turner’s production situates Top Girls precisely within its 1982 setting, conveyed through fabulous costumes designed by Merle Hensel and a programme essay by Dominic Sandbrook on the Margaret Thatcher years. Yet, although Top Girls is now a period piece, it has lost none of its political bite. Marlene’s optimism that ‘the eighties are going to be stupendous’ has accrued even more irony with hindsight. The concluding word of the play, ‘Frightening’, anticipates the disorienting terror of the first scene of Churchill’s play Far Away (2000), written when neoliberalism had been well and truly inaugurated. The final image of Turner’s production – Angie (Marlene’s daughter who she has she left to be brought up by her sister Joyce), in a nightdress, half-asleep, calling ‘Mum’ – is extremely powerful. In a previous scene, Marlene dismissed Angie with shockingly off-hand cruelty: ‘She’s a bit thick. She’s a bit funny. She’s not going to make it’. Turner’s production asks, what duty of care does society – not just women – have to protect its most vulnerable members – those who don’t make the cut in the Darwinian struggle for resources?
The scope and budget of Turner’s production allows it to realise the epic ambition of Churchill’s play. While Max Stafford-Clark’s original production at the Royal Court used a cast of seven, who took on multiple roles, Turner’s production fills the Lyttleton stage with eighteen women. When women playwrights are still chided for not being ambitious enough on the one hand and on the other hand, when programmed, their plays are still more likely to be put in smaller studio spaces, which impose their own limitations on scope, budget and cast size, that feels like an important gesture. If Caryl Churchill can’t have a large cast, who can?
The dinner party that opens the play is staged like an all-female Last Supper in a swanky restaurant, complete with white-booth seating and an imitation impressionist painting in Ian McNeil’s design. Marlene, the newly appointed managing director of Top Girls employment agency, presides over her guests, topping up their wine glasses, as they all get progressively drunker. Each of Marlene’s historical dinner guests have been hailed as exceptional women. Whether received as paragons of virtue – like patient Griselda, whose sense of duty to her husband was so great that she let him take away her children and divorce her – or monstrous aberrations – like Pope Joan, stoned to death when her sex was discovered – being a ‘top girl’ involves some element of pain and punishment.
The first Act is juxtaposed with more naturalistic scenes set at Top Girls employment agency, and in Angie and Marlene’s sister Joyce’s home. It is an emphatic shift in style, brilliantly conveyed by the set of the first scene drifting backwards as if in wide screen, then opening on a narrower cubby hole of the shed Angie plays in with her friend Kit, as if intensifying in focus. (But also, part of the humour of the first scene lies in the incongruity between these historical figures ordering soup or steak and potatoes and talking over each other. And why can’t the domestic be epic?) The moments that hone in on relationships between the women – Angie’s unlikely and irascible friendship with Kit, Marlene and Joyce’s tense encounter after six years – are some of the most powerful in Turner’s production, due to strong performances from the cast.
Liv Hill perfectly pitches Angie’s combination of vulnerability and naïve cruelty (towards Joyce). When she visits Marlene’s office in London, her need is palpable and awkward, distasteful to the hyper-professional Marlene (Katherine Kingsley), who patronises her. Lucy Black as Joyce sets out the human cost of Marlene’s actions in their final confrontation with a stolid dignity. Kingsley and Black’s performances bring out the irreconcilable political differences, underscored by fierce love, between the sisters. Joyce’s point – that feminism is worthless without socialism – seems a timely reminder under Britain’s second woman Conservative Prime Minister.
In the third scene of Top Girls, Mrs Kidd, the wife of Howard who has been passed over for promotion to managing director, comes into the office of the employment agency to confront Marlene. She tells her that Howard is not taking it well – ‘What’s it going to do to him, working for a woman? I think if it was a man he’d get over it as something normal’. Mrs Kidd suggests that Marlene should give up the job for him. Marlene tells her to ‘please piss off’.
I’ve been thinking about Rufus Norris and Lisa Burger’s response to the open letter criticising the absence of women playwrights in the National Theatre’s recent half season announcement. Particularly these two sentences: ‘As the National Theatre, alongside new writing we have a duty to stage plays from the canon – much as the RSC and the Globe have a duty to stage Shakespeare. Because of the historic gender imbalance that canon is overwhelmingly composed of plays by men, but we have set clear targets to affect positive change and are on course to meet them.’
Top Girls is surely, surely part of the canon by now. Not just the feminist canon but the canonical canon (and yes, the existing Western canon is dominated by plays by male writers, but feminist and postcolonial scholars have done a lot of work to expand the canon and to deconstruct the notion of a canon per se). The National’s commitment to having 50% of its programme written by women by 2021 only applies to living writers. Because of the ‘duty’ the National Theatre has to staging the canon, the statement suggests, it cannot commit to achieving gender parity across the playwrights it stages. As Caryl Churchill is a living playwright, Lyndsey Turner’s production of Top Girls counts towards that 50% target, as well as helping fulfil the National’s obligation towards ‘the canon’ as a revival. Shouldn’t shaping a more inclusive canon be part of a national theatre’s mission, rather than preserving the status quo? (But wouldn’t that squeeze out all the excellent male playwrights, I hear you cry. To that I say, ‘please piss off’.)
Top Girls is on at the National Theatre till 22nd June. More details here.