Apparently 2018 is the “Year of the Woman”, and it has definitely felt like the world of theatre has stepped up for the occasion. So imagine my horror when I read Victoria Sadler’s annual report on female playwrights and the reality isn’t quite as rosy across the board as you might hope… I’d definitely recommend giving it a read, as it’s a fascinating and in-depth look into just one aspect of today’s theatre scene – it definitely demonstrates that there’s still some way to go.
Having said that, in the last couple of months alone I’ve seen an incredible amount of shows that have done great things in terms of jobs for women in theatre across the whole spectrum – whether they’re acting, directing, or anything else – and telling women’s stories; it’s undeniably a pretty good time right now. This is completely unscientific, but I reckon if it feels like some things are improving then it’s probably a good sign; as long as nobody rests on their laurels, real & definitive progress could be made.
The RSC’s spring/summer season made a commitment to female artists, resulting in female directors helming each production. I’ve not yet seen the Royal Shakespeare Theatre productions, but it’s their new musical (Miss Littlewood) that stands out for me. Written by Sam Kenyon, it sees a predominantly female cast tell the story of theatre revolutionary Joan Littlewood; seven different actresses play her at various points in the show (inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘The Seven Ages of Man’ speech), giving a diverse range of women the chance to take centre stage. “Why do we know about so many unremarkable men and so few remarkable women?” Well, quite! This was quite a short run thing, but luckily both the script and cast recording are available – though it should really be given the chance to tour or get an extended run somewhere. Theatre Royal Stratford East, perhaps?
The big one, really, has been Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s astounding Emilia at the Globe. As is the theatre’s policy, so it seems, pieces of new writing aren’t allowed to outstay their welcome – between 10 August and 1 September, the show was performed a mere 11 times. But before you cry “sexism!”, Matt Hartley’s new play Eyam will receive just 10 outings from 15 September-13 October – and Tristan Bernays’ Boudica only had 16 shows in 2017, as the sole Globe Theatre new piece. So it’s just what the Globe does, unfortunately.
For me this was gutting on so many levels. Emilia was the very first thing we knew would be in Michelle Terry’s inaugural season, so I had almost a year of build-up to what I was convinced would be the best thing in the 2018 programme (and so far I’m right…). It proved to be a great word-of-mouth hit, along with largely positive reviews (my bullshit-o-meter still hasn’t recovered from reading Time Out’s though), and the atmosphere at the final show was so incredibly exciting. I saw the very first preview too, and that marked the first instance of me bawling in the yard since Emma Rice left!
With an all-female cast, it was a chance to set many things straight. Not only did we get to learn about an extraordinary woman (who I’d only vaguely heard of because I studied sonnet 130 for my English Literature GCSE), but it was a chance for all the women in that theatre (on and off the stage) to feel a spark of empowerment – as well as justified anger. Clare Perkins’ delivery of Emilia’s final monologue during that last performance will stay with me for a very long time – she would absolutely have blown the roof off the theatre had there been one! I am convinced that there must be plans of a future life for this play, given the outpouring of love for it and the considerable amount of work that went into sets & costumes (let alone the writing of it!), so I’m poised to book tickets whenever it next surfaces.
Being a Tudor obsessive (I genuinely think I could take that on as a specialist subject on Mastermind) it was clear that I’d need to see Six at some point. I missed out on its brief London stint at the start of the year, and de-prioritised it in Edinburgh, so with an extended ‘West End’ run on offer I had to make the most of it at the Arts. I did wonder beforehand of my lifelong aversion to girl bands would count against me, and unfortunately that came true. I hadn’t initially realised that it’s solely a concert (immediately not helping with the girl band thing) for starters, plus it was also let down by making Anne Boleyn seem quite dim and taking the obvious ‘true love’ route with Jane Seymour. It’s all very well done – I’d recommend it to anyone who doesn’t share my specific likes & dislikes – but I felt that the female empowerment aspect comes in the form of the people taking part in the show, rather than what actually goes on in it. Not necessary viewing, by any means.
Another one I’d been looking forward to for a considerable amount of time (and which I’ll only, hopefully, see the full version of tonight) is Sylvia. Unless you’ve been living under a rock in 2018, you’ll know that there have been various celebrations of the centenary of partial women’s suffrage all year – including exhibitions at places such as the Museum of London & the Houses of Parliament, a screening of the film Suffragette at the Royal Albert Hall, and PROCESSIONS (living artworks formed by thousands of women in various UK cities on 10 June). You’ll be unsurprised to hear that I’ve been throwing myself into these things with considerable energy, and devouring every book on the subject that I possibly can, so a stage realisation of all these famous (& infamous) events has to be the pinnacle of my year.
Aside from some small-minded people’s idiotic comments on casting (this is a story about gender, not race, so why shouldn’t Beverley Knight play Emmeline Pankhurst?), the build-up to this show has been amazing. It beggars belief that it was only given a three-week run, with no leeway for a short extension, when so much effort has been put into this historic piece of theatre. I can only assume that there have been tentative future plans in place for some time that meant it could be three weeks and no more, otherwise it’s a baffling waste of effort & promotion.
Obviously they weren’t to know that illness would put paid to a couple of the performances, but this is also something you need to have in the back of your mind when organising runs of shows, surely? Anyway, having seen the first act of the open dress rehearsal (what should’ve been preview one) I’m anxiously awaiting the full show, as it was a very promising start. Lady Jennie Churchill would be getting her own spin-off show, if it were up to me… Sylvia Pankhurst is a hugely inspiring woman, though she often gets overlooked in favour of her mother’s “deeds not words” campaign of civil disobedience; as an early socialist, her aims were wide-reaching and all-encompassing, doing incredible work with the working class of London’s East End and effecting real change.
I’d also briefly like to mention a couple of other shows that have both recently started previews: Wasted (the Brontë musical at Southwark Playhouse) and The Village (Nadia Fall’s first production as Theatre Royal Stratford East’s new AD). Wasted may feature the brother, Branwell, but it’s the sisters’ struggles that have the loudest voices – and thereby highlights the inequality between the men and women. The Village shows the strength of a 16-year-old girl, Jyoti, in the face of India’s corrupt officials, as she gives the rest of the women in her village the fortitude to take some control over their lives; this is compared with the choices faced by a female politician, vying to win a fair election.
Some stirring stuff, I hope you’ll agree – and there’s much more where that came from. Hopefully this tipping of the scales will continue, where appropriate & needed, and here’s to all the women’s stories we’ve yet to hear!