Almeida Theatre, London – until 26 May 2018
It is a curiosity of the age that young British women seem to be far angrier about The Patriarchy than their mothers, even though law, language, women’s accomplishments, education, and domestic social conventions are infinitely more on their side, and their struggle is far less. None of our 1960s victories counts: one wrong pass or incautious phrase and they cry outrage. Every global cruelty and disaster from war and capitalism to environmental disaster is men’s fault too – even when a woman sends the bombers, runs the shops or uses the microbead lotions. Odd.
In this show, the bastards are also in charge of the arts: ruining creative women’s holy myths by mentioning squalid things like the need to sell tickets for the Sacred Space that is Theatre. Ella Hickson’s meta-theatrical play opens with a bracing encounter between a male director (Sam West) and a truculent, furious young woman (Lara Rossi, brilliant at it). She has seen a play and informs him that it was unreal, “saying lines… fake hair and new shoes and famous people doing things badly”, that he’s just a “good night out sort of guy” (ugh!) and that old men with flaking skin “tell THEIR truth” and don’t change the world with holy fire. So he offers her a writing commission, but it turns out that when they met before he tried to kiss her, so that invalidates everything, hashtag MeToo!
The patriarchal idea of logical narrative is obviously out of the question, so it jerks on to a quite funny sketch of a panel – adding Romola Garai and Michael Gould to the first two – discussing a work in progress. There’s one great exchange where the elder man sneers that drama can’t be “just one person’s self-involved perspective on their own anguish” and the woman writer replies “Hamlet!”
Hence to a half-finished playlet (Anna Fleischle’s set nicely built in moments onstage) in which Garai and West are a couple. He (after a quick shag) serves her supper and wishes she would accept a £40k film offer for her play. She says it would be like mutilating an unborn child, that she is “broken” in agonizing pain by his love of sofas and Waitrose, and that Picasso didn’t do anything he didn’t want to , so why should she? A real baby is briefly brought on, to prove she doesn’t want one, and next thing we know the set has vanished and she is having an IUD fitted. Which brings on a mythic monologue about being in a tribe with the goddess Semele and having lesbian sex under rippling lighting effects, which is better than the “semi devastated feeling that follows sex with men” because you negotiate your own sameness…
The producer comes on and mutters that though she is frighteningly gifted the play would be better without this “tribal shit” and with an actual ending. So despite her affront (“writers need to be safe”) we move to that ending. Which consists of a ritzier set, the two women eating a takeaway and having sex, once without a huge vivid purple dildo and once with it. Which upsets them, because just as in the end of Animal Farm. the power-game panting of the topmost one means that she has become one of the oppressive pigs. Dicks are evil, see?
I get it. I see why this means to break boundaries and change the world, know why the real male boss-class put it on, and why some uneasy middle-aged men – with and without flaky skin – will give it an approving nod. And the cast are all excellent. But I’m a woman, and a fiction writer, and frankly, if this is feminism and a plea for creativity I am a banana. It speaks only for the narrowest of demographics: a notional angry , unloving, sexually militant mythoholic 24-year-old riddled with humourless artistic vanity and self-pity. That Ella Hickson gives her male characters occasional sharp funny lines to puncture this monstrous kid’s balloon is to her credit. But as a play, it is pretty awful.