I went along needing to be convinced. For the third time in two years, London’s Tricycle Theatre has undertaken a day-long themed play series: following on from “The Great Game”, about Afghanistan, and “Not Black and White”, about race in Britain, the latest is “Women, Power, and Politics”, nine short plays by female writers, interspersed with edited verbatim accounts from female MPs. These past series have proved very successful for the Tricycle. Reviews have been quite positive, particularly for the “Great Game” series, which is currently being revived in advance of a US tour this autumn, and overall, critics and audiences have welcomed them as timely and creative programming about important and topical concerns.
Personally, however, I have found these series conceptually flawed in their approach to difference and power relations, and in their (under-articulated) overall purpose. There was not one Afghan playwright included in the “Great Game” series (because, according to artistic director Nicolas Kent, there “aren’t any” – a glaring factual inaccuracy). Thus neo-colonial politics were inscribed in the series from its outset: it presented British and American theatre artists representing a culture that has long been little-known and little-understood in the West, without giving that culture any opportunity to represent itself. To be fair, “The Great Game” was undertaken in the spirit of wanting to better understand Afghanistan, and was almost universally embraced and celebrated as such by the British press; the questions about representation that so troubled me simply didn’t seem to appear on the local radar.
“Not Black and White” seemed almost comically banjaxed from the outset by its title. If issues of race in Britain aren’t binary, then why reinscribe binarism in the series title (even in the guise of refuting it), and why commission only black writers to address the issues? The answer, presumably, is under-representation – we don’t hear enough from voices of colour, so this series offered an opportunity for them to be heard. In my view, however, the three playwrights commissioned – Bola Agbaje, Kwame Kwei-Armah, and Roy Williams – have all been overexposed in recent years; the London theatre establishment (for many worthy reasons) has been so eager to identify black voices that it has promoted these three interesting but not (so far) formally adventurous writers beyond their capabilities. While they discussed important issues (black representation in UK politics; the penal system; the relationship between black Britons and new immigrants of colour) all three plays in this series could as easily have been on TV as on stage.
My problem with these series, as is probably becoming clear, is that, in the name of promoting greater understanding and under-represented voices, the Tricycle actually reinforces difference, and reinforces its own position as the agent capable of enabling the empowerment of others. There’s also something troubling about how these series have been promoted – and embraced – as modes of teaching and learning about the unknown or not-enough-known (this follows on from the Tricycle’s central role in producing documentary and verbatim theatre, two other theatrical forms that foreground their instructive role). The consensus about the “Great Game” series is that it opened up understandings about a region about which the average British person knows very little; but surely this then puts a documentary onus on the series, a responsibility to represent fairly and evenly? Is this really what theatre is best at? Outrageousness, exaggeration, imagining the previously unimaginable, speaking the previously unspoken: all these more fabulous qualities of theatre seem sidelined by this programming mode.
So, then: “Women, Power, and Politics”. Initially, I was dubious: another opportunity for token engagement in and letting-off-steam about a topical issue, with women as the latest under-represented, patronised group? But this endeavour turned out to be much more satisfying and more provocative than the previous series, largely because the issues it confronts are, relatively speaking, more broadly known (if not fully understood). I’m not sure if I agree with Indhu Rubasingham, producer of this series and director of all but one of its plays, when she states in a programme note that “everyone... has a fervent opinion” about the under-representation of women in British public life. Surely passivity and apathy are the characteristic (and problematic) attitudes here, not fervency and consensus. But I agree with Rubasingham that she started with an advantage in tackling a relatively familiar set of problems and, in some instances, a cast of recognisable real-life characters.
The series’ best plays were characterised by a spirit of imaginative, even fanciful speculation, and a lack of interest in the merely representational or realistic. Raising awareness about an unjust political situation? Wake me up when it’s over. It’s much more fun, and arguably more useful, to eavesdrop in the corridors of power as imagined by subversive agents of creativity, to imagine ourselves in the place of the powerful rather than be recast as powerless victims. It is this spirit that infuses Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, which is inspired by the real-life fact that Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher took tea together every week throughout Thatcher’s eleven-year premiership (indeed the Queen meets all of her PMs weekly). What on earth did the two women say to each other? We may never know the truth, but I’m more than happy with Buffini’s imagined version, which has the women locking horns (ever so politely) about the Commonwealth (for the Queen, her bailiwick; for Thatcher, a “multi-racial quango dominated by the Third World”) and about the responsibility of the state to look after its weakest citizens (I will leave you to speculate how that argument panned out).
Buffini, brilliantly, underlines the inherently speculative nature of this undertaking by representing each woman as two characters - her younger and older selves (Stella Gonet and Heather Craney play Thatcher; Kika Markham and Claire Cox the Queen) - and having the characters constantly question their own and each other’s memory of events. It’s never quite clear where and when we are, except that we’re in the theatre (“What can one say here? How far can one go?” ask the Queen. “Oh, don’t hold back.” replies Thatcher. “It’s all beyond our control”). This emphasis on instability and uncertainty in fact frees Buffini to let her imagination run rampant: about what really went on behind the scenes in 1986 when the Queen was said to have criticised many of Thatcher’s policies, about the flirtatious relationship between Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (Tom Mannion, in a fun cameo), and about the useful social glue that chit-chat about bilberry jam can provide. The play ends abruptly, leaving the two women in eternal standoff (Queen: “Won’t you sit down?” Thatcher: “No.” Blackout.), but its effect is one of extended intoxication. Buffini’s imaginative riffing provokes us to think about history at a human level and about decisions and confrontations as only single options in a set of infinite outcomes.
Sam Holcroft’s Pink is another outrageously enjoyable riff on the backstage adventures of a female PM, this one fictional. The jumping-off point for Holcroft seems to be the revelation during last year’s expenses scandal that then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith unwittingly billed the porn consumed by her husband to the British taxpayer. The play has porn-star-turned-magnate Kim (Craney) confronted unexpectedly in a TV chat-show dressing room by the PM, Bridget (Gonet), whose husband has been outed by the press as a consumer of Kim’s wares. Holcroft’s innovative, controversial, and not entirely successful gesture here is to push the boundaries of the argument that porn can be liberating for rather than exploitative of women, when Bridget (for reasons that never quite track logically) tries to re-enlist Kim into the ranks of porn performance as a form of advocacy for female enjoyment of sex. The play doesn’t end up quite holding water, but it’s another great conveyer of food for thought – and a vehicle for bravura performances from Craney and Gonet.
Zinnie Harris turns expectations of this forum on their head by writing an all-male play: The Panel imagines a five-man committee deliberating over a series of candidates for a job that their company has said must go to a woman. One candidate is “shoddy”, another has a reference that is good but “doesn’t glow”; finally, they talk themselves into believing they’ve found the perfect candidate – until they decide she’s “a bit too perfect”. If Harris is making a gender-specific commentary here, it’s a subtle one; the parody is more of decision-making processes and the difficulty of creating consensus. With its zinging dialogue and tight narrative structure, The Panel feels exactly the right length, unlike several others in the series, such as Agbaje’s woeful satire of student politics, Playing the Game, which feels like an over-extended sketch, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s The Lioness, which attempts to telescope the scope of Elizabeth I’s already over-fictionalised life and career into 25 minutes (though it does provide an opportunity for bravura acting that Niamh Cusack (pictured below) grabs with both hands).
Similarly, Lucy Kirkwood’s Bloody Wimmin feels like a full-length television drama about Greenham Common squashed unsuccessfully into a playlet; but, that being said, Kirkwood reveals a terrific aptitude for dialogue, and director Rubasingham navigates the play’s quick swings from broadly comic group scenes to a searing domestic bust-up (beautifully acted by Claire Cox and Oliver Chris) brilliantly. Indeed it is Rubasingham as director who is the breakout discovery here: despite variable writing, the pace of this five-hour event (viewable as alternative evenings or a single day’s viewing) never flags, and she coaxes her actors to always-perceptive and subtle readings of a wide variety of characters. Standouts among the actors include Cusack, Gonet, Craney, and star-in-the-making Lara Rossi, who, remarkably, is still in drama school.
Overall this event succeeds because if it has an agenda to inform or educate, it wears it very lightly indeed. I left feeling provoked to learn more about the history of gender and protest in Britain, about the workings of Parliament, and about the responsibilities of the monarch, but I didn’t feel as if information about these had been forced down my throat. But most of all I felt excited by ideas all but bursting through the seams of the short-play form, and by the talent of writers such as Holcroft, Harris, Kirkwood, and Buffini from whom – and this would be the best possible work this series could accomplish – we will be seeing more as part of theatres’ regular programmes in the months and years to come.
Karen Fricker lectures in contemporary theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is deputy London theatre critic for Variety (US). From June-December 2010 she is a visiting professor in the Department of English at McGill University, Montréal.