Not Exactly Billington has set themselves a challenge to read a new (to them) playtext every week. In April, their #ReadaPlayaWeek titles included Valerie Windsor’s Effie’s Burning, Rose Leiman Goldemberg’s Letters Home, Maureen Duffy’s Rites, and Claire Luckham’s Trafford Tanzi.
Effie’s Burning (1987) by Valerie Windsor
Windsor’s play is over 30 years old, yet the fact that Effie’s Burning still resonates deeply in a world of social segregation and ignorance is a hard-hitting reminder that we have much further to go in terms of ensuring the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Sixty-year-old Effie is horribly injured, recovering in hospital from a fire at the care home where she lives – a fire the authorities are insisting was caused by Effie herself. When young Dr Kovacs takes an interest in Effie and vows to find out what happened to her lifelong friend, Alice, the truth is shocking and deeply tragic.
Windsor manages to get under the skin of several pertinent issues with wit, empathy and clarity in a play which benefits from brevity and intimacy. As we hear of Effie’s upbringing in a cold, unloving farmhouse – her name a shorthand for ‘Effing Brat’ as coined by her father – as well as Dr Kovacs’ frequent humiliations by her bullying supervisor and head surgeon, the resounding theme is that of the injustices dealt to, and exploitation of, women across generations, heritage, and class divisions. The tendency to manage what are considered to be ‘problem children’ by sweeping them under the carpet is a horrifying concept and the insinuation that Dr Kovacs is the first person ever to sympathise with Effie, or even to ask her about her life, is heart-breaking.
On a personal level, I found some of the descriptions of child mental health facilities to be nauseatingly evocative, while Effie’s recollection of the day she was removed from her family home – and the reason for doing so – is incredibly distressing. The near sub-human way in which ‘difficult’ patients are treated – isolation, the severing of close friendships – is a hard-hitting reminder of the issues surrounding the care of vulnerable people that prevails. One only has to look at local and national news reports of institutional deaths resulting from neglect to see the dire need for progress and radical restructuring of mental health and social care systems.
The scattering of ‘knock knock’ jokes throughout lends the play a structure that mirrors Effie’s psychological strain and trust issues. The subversion of such jokes cleverly plays with the both Dr Kovacs’ and the audience/reader’s perceptions of ‘rules’ and ‘truth’. Windsor also imbues the piece with a magic realism that results in a dreamlike quality – an effect which pays off during Effie’s final recollection of the fire and Dr Kovacs’ stand against her horrible boss. It’s subtle and very, very compelling.
Letters Home (1979) by Rose Leiman Goldemberg
Despite my background of literature and mental health struggles, I (I’m rather ashamed to say) have never read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It’s one of those novels I’ve always intended on reading eventually, but then life and other books seem to get in the way. Yet, having now read Goldemberg’s Letters Home (an adaptation of Aurelia Plath’s epistolary memoire), I shall make it my solid mission to do so!
Plath’s death is one of literature’s greatest tragedies, and what Letters Home does is gives us a dazzling insight into the tormented ecstasy of the poet’s mind. From her college days and the numerous prizes she won in ladies’ magazines, to her fateful marriage to Ted Hughes and her struggles with motherhood, Plath’s world is brought to life by Goldemberg with a powerful vivacity that encapsulates the woman’s spirit. The play is performed as a duologue, alternating between duels, duets and ‘round’ style verse-like prose. In the afterword, Goldemberg impresses the importance of using only the words put down by Sylvia (in her letters) and Aurelia (in her annotations), yet she demonstrates exceptional dramaturgy skills in arranging these words into an expansive tapestry of emotive and psychological intrigue that effuses sentiment, artistry and drama in one breathtaking swoop of a text. Overlaps, discordant undertones and a symmetry between mother and child add potency to Plath’s already inimitable use of language. As an elegy on maternal instinct, passionate ambition, and unspeakable loss, Plath and Goldemberg’s play is supremely readable and genuinely moving.
Rites (1969) by Maureen Duffy
“I’m not having any man down here”
Originally directed by Joan Plowright for the National Theatre in an effort to champion female playwrights, Duffy’s play sets its eye on a ladies’ toilets at a central London train station. It is of its time, purely from the facilities coming with an in-house attendant and cleaner, as well as an incinerator. However, I don’t think that Rites should be confined as a museum piece showing a classic example of a feminist play making the personal political. Two main reasons give the play more enduring appeal: it has echoes of a Greek tragedy (apparently mirroring The Bacchaealthough I’m not convinced) which gives it a classical structure; and the career-minded attendant Ada (Geraldine McEwan) reads as more modern than characters in any of Duffy’s contemporaries. Perhaps one of the reasons why it feels quite modern is that it’s set in a personal space isolated from men (although, interestingly, we do see a group of workmen build the set, thus creating this world). In what the visitors come to talk about, from sex and periods to secrets and quiet ambitions, there is an air of liberation. They may talk about men, and some of the characters may have devoted their lives to supporting a man, but in this drama we don’t feel that any of the characters are merely collateral for a man’s journey.
During the morning rush, the array of characters that come in demonstrates different and changing attitudes to sex and the role of women in marriage and the workplace. From the office girls wanting to escape their boss for the day, to the two old widows (“I cleaned his shoes for him every day of our life”), Ritesis interested in women’s destinies not being determined by biology or the control of a man. Ada, however, has a degree of autonomy in her role. That is, until, the play takes a Greek tragic turn thus putting her promotion at risk. In her insistence that she’s not managed by a man, she is led into a troubling decision which some may feel complicates the play’s political message.
Trafford Tanzi (1980) by Claire Luckham
“We can’t have no compromises, either you decide to be my wife… or off you trot”
Trafford Tanzi follows the upbringing, personal life and making of a female champion boxer, the titular character. Quite prosaically told, each scene is introduced by a referee, with the players announced at the beginning and the ‘winner’ announced at the end. But the plot doesn’t matter, the telling of it is the more important and exciting bit. Played in a boxing ring, each scene becomes a literal battle of the sexes. The referee character, grandstanding as a cabaret club presenter, frames the play so its tone is the same as a boxing match, and the stage directions are dominated by wrestling terms: Irish whip, wristlock, ref’s hold, backhammer, head mare, single leg Boston to name but a few.
Trafford Tanzi culminates in a fight between her and her husband, the lesser Dean Rebel. In doing so, Tanzi is fighting for everything she believes in: if he wins, she plays the role of wife (as he sees it), complete with “apple pie on Sundays [and] afternoons in bed”. For Dean, Tanzi’s strength demoralises him and is incompatible with the stereotypical image of a wife. Both this and Rites concern themselves with appointed socially constructed roles and expectations. In what I imagine to be an entertaining piece of theatre to experience, the characters’ deliberate caricature nature lends itself to the comedy of the play, as well as satirises how strictly society sees (or at least how it has in the past seen) and demarcates gender roles.
All published by Methuen