Midsummer Mischief

The Other Place, Stratford on Avon,

it’s been a long time coming but the RSC are finally waking up to the idea that perhaps over the past fifty odd years there has been a bit of a gender disparity in its stable of writers and directors. More than 40 years ago, a young woman director Buzz Goodbody enlivened proceedings for a short while, both through the brilliance of her Shakespeare productions, her visionary work with touring and her work in a tin shed and small studio space for experimental work that became known as The Other Place.

Sadly, this breath of fresh air didn’t last long. Buzz died in 1975 and although TOP continued to inspire directors for another fifteen years, it and Buzz’s vision stalled.

To Greg Doran’s great credit when he succeeded Michael Boyd last year as RSC Artistic Director, he appointed a woman, Erica Whyman as his Deputy.
Whyman came from Newcastle’s Northern Stage, via the Gate Notting Hill and Southwark Playhouses with a reputation in the classics and for promoting new work.

Already her appointment appears to be bearing fruit with a `Roaring Girls’ season in The Swan, reviving three rarely performed Jacobean plays, Dekker & Middleton’s The Roaring Girl, Arden of Faversham (Anonymous) and Webster’s The White Devil – all directed by women. Across the road at the now deserted Courtyard Theatre – formerly The Other Place but enlarged and converted to house the company’s work whilst its main stage and The Swan theatres were being revamped – TOP is re-emerging, Phoenix-like with a short season of plays by women as a complement and modern day response to The Roaring Girls season.

TOP is due to be redeveloped if Whyman has her way. At present, its pop-up auditorium is a makeshift stage created on the stage of the Courtyard with audiences uncomfortably perched on benches.

As for the four plays, they too have been hurriedly commissioned and staged by Whyman with Jo McInnes with a whirlwind of energy and a fantastically dedicated and talented ensemble of just six actors.

It would be good to report that the plays themselves thrilled with their daring and radicalism. In some respects they do. Timberlake Wertenbaker whose work over the years has often involved reworking old myths (eg The Love of the Nightingale, commissioned by the RSC for TOP in 1989 was adapted from the Greek legend of the Rape of Philomela) is perhaps the most accomplished.

In The Ant and the Cicada – ants work, cicadas merely sing! – she returns to Greece intertwining present day Greece’s economic woes with an exploration of democracy and language.

Taking vintage swipes at the way language has been colonised by economists whilst examining the contrasting value systems of two sisters – the one artistic, the other pragmatic – it contains a third act of playful audience participation mixed with theatrical conventions, Greek tragedy and modern EU parallels via a female national liberation figure from 19th century Greek history, one Bouboulina. Over-written and running on far too long, it could never, however, be accused of lack of ambition. And ultimately, Wertenbaker, appealingly, is on the side of the future. And optimism.

If Wertenbaker, the older hand, paints on a large canvas, younger voices, E V Crowe (I Can Hear You) and Abi Zakarian (This Is Not an Exit) feel respectively whimsical (a feminist version of a J M Barrie spectral visitation) and in Zakarian’s case as a slightly obscure dig at the modern career women’s pressure to conform. Both feel more like sketches than full bloodied finished pieces.

Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is certainly the most uncompromisingly radical in terms of form. Once again, the use of language is uppermost with an opening seduction sequence that brilliantly inverts the convention of male `possession’. Somewhere in the subsequent scenes, there is a call to revolutionise work, motherhood and much else but such is the staccato mode of dialogue and the darkening atmosphere of nihilism and chaos that I have to confess, I lost the plot.

So, it’s all to play for at TOP.
Intention? Top!
Execution? less so.

There’s some fantastic writing by young women playwrights around at present. Midsummer Mischief doesn’t perhaps represent the best of it. Yet. But I don’t doubt there’s much more to come.

A step in the right direction? No doubt. And Buzz? I hope she’s smiling from the gods…

First published in Londongrip , July 2014