The women changing the face of theatre

August 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

  • From The Times, August 1, 2009
  • “When I was acting, I couldn’t even get an audition at the Royal Court. But I never want my plays to become vanity projects. It has to be real, otherwise it’s worthless.”

  • Not since Pinter and co has British theatre possessed such a brilliant wave of young playwrights. But this time round they are all women

Lucy Powell

Playwright Polly Stenham

“What’s happening now is remarkable,” says Dominic Cooke, artistic director of the Royal Court, referring to the extraordinary crop of young women writers who are rewriting theatre’s rule book. “It’s like being in the Eighties.”

In that decade the most exciting, revolutionary and enduring work for the stage was being produced by women, with Caryl Churchill in the vanguard. Afterwards, blazing comets such as Sarah Kane appeared, but there was “nothing like the critical mass and complete confidence we’re witnessing now”, Cooke says. “It is fantastic, and it is astonishing.” New works by women are igniting the Royal Court, the Young Vic, Chichester, and Soho theatres as well as New York and the West End. In October 21-year-old Atiha Sen Gupta’s first full-length play, What Fatima Did . . ., about a Muslim girl’s decision to wear a hijab to school, will headline the Hampstead Theatre’s new season.

The question, as Cooke says, is not why this is happening now, but why it didn’t happen earlier. Last year Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin became the first original full-length play by a woman to be shown on the National’s main stage. “Things are slowly changing,” the National’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, says. “But there have been, and probably still are, fewer women playwrights. Of the plays offered here, about one in four is by a woman.”

Since that is manifestly not the case in other creative mediums, it is worth asking why. Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, invented by Virginia Woolf in 1928 to explain the dearth of great women writers, died young, never having stained her fingers with ink. In Elizabethan England there were two good reasons for this. First, women were busy trying to keep themselves and their children children alive. And, second, often they could not read.

By 1928 women novelists had taken their place in the pantheon, but Shakespeare’s sister remained strangely muted on stage, particularly when you consider that Aphra Behn, the first female professional writer in English, was also the most productive playwright of her day, after Dryden. Behn was adamant that had her plays come out under “any man’s name”, she would have been hailed the genius of the Restoration. As it was, she was decried as a syphilitic “punk” and her works pilloried for being too saucy.

Stella Feehily’s third play, Dreams of Violence at the Soho Theatre, has been hailed a spectacular modern tragicomedy, says: “Women wrote novels because it could be done at home. Theatre not only culminates in a very public event but also is dependent on collaboration in a sphere that has traditionally been dominated by men. It requires an enormous amount of confidence and single-mindedness to write ‘the big play’ — and I’ve rarely met the man who wasn’t convinced of his opinions.”

Of the writers mentioned here, none views themself as a “woman writer”. The very phrase, according to Lucy Prebble, “propagates something we ought to be well over by now”. The sentiment is best expressed by Ella Hickson, who concludes: “The single most important thing that I can do for feminism in theatre and for my gender is to ignore it completely, get on and do the job.”

Woolf concluded in 1928 that despite the Austens, Eliots and Brontës on her shelf, much work had yet to be done. It was only, Woolf argued, when women were completely oblivious to their gender that they would be free to write with untramelled originality. When that day arrived, she predicted, Shakespeare’s sisters would at last begin to speak. Judging by the bold, brilliant and gender-blind women featured here, that day has come.

1 Polly Stenham Stenham pocketed the word precocious when That Face opened at the Royal Court in 2007. She was 19 when she wrote it, and her portrait of a family in Freudian meltdown was hailed as an astonishing, groundbreaking debut. The multi award-winning production, starring Lindsay Duncan as an alcoholic, addled mother, transferred last year to the West End for another sell-out run. Her follow-up, Tusk Tusk, opened at the Royal Court in May. “The expectation was mammoth,” Stenham says in her surprising, smoky alto. “I was in rehearsals all day, writing all night, and by the end I was this shaky little wreck. The Royal Court had to put me to bed at one point.”

But that viciously incisive tale of three, upper-crust, uncared-for children was similarly deluged in praise. Like her first, it’s also being developed by Stenham for the big screen, and she is now working on her third play. “It’s about friendship, friends as a second family,” the 23-year-old says. The play is due to open next year in the Royal Court’s main house. “They’ve let me downstairs this time, which is really tricky,” Stenham admits with a nervous laugh. “You’re up against the big dogs down there.”

Stenham’s parents divorced, she boarded at Wycombe Abbey and Rugby public schools and was brought up by her unconventional, business tycoon father. She now lives in her father’s house in Highgate with her younger sister, Daisy; “Cob” Stenham died in 2006, aged 75. She dedicated That Face to him, and credits him with instilling in her a love of theatre. “It was our hobby,” she says. “But I didn’t have a burning desire to write plays. I wanted to write novels, and still do,” she says. “I just sort of fell into playwrighting by accident.” She abandoned a degree at UCL after she was accepted on a Royal Court writers programme. “And I feel so lucky I did. It makes sense of the world. And even if it didn’t, it just makes me so happy.”

2 Alia Bano “This has been a seriously strange year,” Bano says. Her debut play, Shades, a sassy, incisive comedy about a young Muslim woman’s search for love, was a hit when it opened in February, equally beloved by young audiences and gobsmacked, middle- aged critics. She was driven to write it because she was “sick of so many Muslim caricatures in the media, every boy a terrorist, every woman oppressed under a hijab”.

At the same time, Bano didn’t want to be branded “a Muslim writer. I am a Muslim, but I’m just a writer.” She wanted to write all through her teens, but didn’t know how to start until her sister suggested a young writers’ course at the Royal Court. Three similar programmes and four years later, Shades was born. “I teach A-level students during the day, so I couldn’t dedicate my whole life to it,” she says. “You need money as an artist.”

Her sister, with whom she lives, is now pushing her to complete her next two commissions, one new play for the Court, and another for a Midlands company, but “with our mum it’s really funny”, Bano says. “She doesn’t take it seriously at all. If you’ve been brought up in a British culture, being a writer is something amazing and spectacular. My mum comes from a working-class, Pashtun culture where it’s all about professions. She’s pleased, but also totally oblivious.”

Her father died when Bano was 9, and her mother raised her eight children “on the dole. And none of us are on the dole now, which is impressive,” Bano adds. But it was always her elder sister who proved her greatest inspiration. “She broke through a whole load of cultural barriers when I was growing up, going to university when it was so not expected of her and becoming a lecturer. She made it much easier for me to do whatever it was I wanted,” Bano says. “It meant I never had to carry that feeling that I had to fight and be the first.”

3 Ella Hickson If Polly Stenham’s plays are glittering riffs on Larkin’s, “f*** you up” school of posh parenting, Ella Hickson’s take an antithetical view. “My generation’s hideous,” the 24- year-old says in dampened, public school vowels. “Lazy, expectorial, so stupid. Apathy reigns. ‘Chill out’ is the death word. We have chilled out. Now what?”

In Hickson’s case, the answer was Eight. Fresh out of Edinburgh University with a first in English and art history, she set about writing a series of monologues with audiences voting for the four stories they most wanted to hear, the unpicked actors sitting mutely on stage. “I wanted to front that idea of choice, of taking responsibility for what you’re watching,” she says.

The show, which Hickson also directed, scooped the Fringe First and Carol Tambor awards at the Edinburgh Festival, had a subsequent, three-week run in New York and another that recently closed in the West End. Both garnered huge acclaim. Her follow-up, Precious Little Talent, opens next month at the Edinburgh Festival, a three- hander about “what it means to graduate into a recession”. Hickson says: “My generation is so laden with cynicism, but we’re going to have to fight now. Where will the fuel for that come from?”

Her own emanates largely from her mother, an English school teacher, who “brought up two kids on her own” in Surrey, and “was vicious about making us go to the theatre, travel, read, and take a stand”. Hickson had always written as a child, but what pulled her to the theatre as an undergraduate was the sense of belonging that she experienced there and the feeling of freedom that followed. She plans to stay in Edinburgh for another year, working on her first novel on a scholarship at her university and developing another play for the Traverse Theatre. “It’s a bit busy,” she says, but this isn’t something that troubles the redoubtable Hickson. “Contentment,” she concludes, “doesn’t breed great writing.”

4 Lucy Prebble Lucy Prebble’s second play, Enron, has just opened in Chichester prior to an extended Royal Court run. “It’s slightly crazy,” the 28-year-old says. “I was getting ready to tell everyone that I’d written this really sensible, naturalistic play about corporate finance and then “Rupert bloody Goold”, who directs, “came along and threw a load of mad dinosaurs and singing and dancing into it. If it’d got all two-star reviews, that would’ve been my take.” As it is, she’s happy to admit that every last dinosaur was her idea. Critics are describing Enron as a “staggering”, “revolutionary” achievement, already being tipped for an Olivier award.

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful because I’m thrilled,” Prebble says. “But, equally, I was critically kicked to f*** over Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” her muchderided 2007 ITV drama, starring Billie Piper as the slightly moody hooker. “If I take seriously all the five-star reviews, I have to take seriously what they said then.”

Like Stenham and Bano, Prebble is a graduate of the Royal Court’s young writer’s programme. Her first full-length play, The Sugar Syndrome, about paedophilia and chat rooms, won her a raft of “most promising” awards. She’s consistently drawn to “half hidden worlds”, those that people warn her off: “I hate being told I won’t understand something,” she says.

The youngest of three children, she attended the same public school as Hickson, grew up in Haslemere, and studied at Sheffield University where she wrote her first, award-winning play, Liquid. No one in her family is an artist, but she wanted to write, she says with a detectable half-smile, because “I like control. I like having conversations where people can’t answer back,” and she loves theatre because it’s “live, real and just so good to its writers.”

For audiences, though, Prebble is aware that it can be painful. “When it’s bad, theatre’s awful. Spending an hour getting there, being overcharged for drinks, sitting in silence in the dark looking one way. If I’m going to ask people to go through that rather than sit at home, playing the PS3 in their underwear, I’d better be giving them something special, funny and clever.”

5 Alecky Blythe Alecky Blythe, 36, spent 18 months in a “completely normal, cosy” brothel by the sea, eating crisps with the women in the parlour, gathering evidence for her new show, The Girlfriend Experience. A sensation when it opened at the Royal Court in 2007, exploding every stereotype about latter-day prostitution and the women who work in it, the show has recently transferred to the Young Vic by popular demand and has been optioned to television.

The Girlfriend Experience is her eighth work, though Blythe is still loath to describe herself as a playwright. Every word spoken on her stage has been recorded in interviews. Lines are then relayed to the actors via visible earpieces, allowing them to retain the verbal ticks of the original interviewees. The technique also reminds audiences of the authenticity of the material. “You write it in the programme but nobody bloody reads them,” Blythe comments. But her skill at eliciting and editing her material into punchy, performable shape is gaining international recognition.

She pioneered this recorded, verbatim technique for her first show, Come Out Eli, which was based on the protracted siege of the Hackney gunman Eli Hall. She took to the streets with a tape recorder, a vague list of questions and a hope of making a play. “I didn’t do it because I thought women were under-represented in theatre,” she says. “I did it because I was an actress in a load of old rubbish and I wanted to be in something half decent.”

She changed her name just before Come Out Eli, in an effort to get more parts. “My real name was Bulgen,” she says. “All these stupid casting directors would look at my name and go, ‘ Russian?’ And I’d be like, ‘no no. Essex actually’. I thought I’d help these poor people out as much as I could.” Blythe was the name of an inspirational drama teacher, who’d helped her through a “tricky time” when she was 7.

“I haven’t hung up my acting … socks, if that’s the phrase,” she says. “I’m just waiting for the right character to come along. I was offered a part in this, and it was so so painful to turn it down.


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