Almeida Theatre, London – until 26 May 2018
It feels as though we’re living through a golden age for new writing, unsurprising given the heightened political circumstances of the last two years, but this has coincided with a period in which mainstream theatres have been prepared to take greater risk, making space amidst the musicals and classic revivals for a blossoming of new work. The Ferryman may have had all the Best New Play categories sewn-up in the recent award season, but its fellow nominees – Ink, Oslo and Network – in any other year would have been equally deserving. And there were plenty of impressive new shows that were overlooked including Anatomy of a Suicide and The Grinning Man.
This year is proving to be equally rich, and along with The Inheritance which premiered at the Young Vic last month, three new plays have opened in as many weeks in London’s major theatres – Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre, Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court, and now Ella Hickson’s The Writer at the Almeida, her much anticipated follow-up to Oil. While all of this writing has been innovative, exciting and engaging, it also set a high bar exposing the weaknesses in less satisfying work.
The creative process is a complex and fascinating thing, but Hickson argues there is a personal cost for those who put something meaningful into the world and, if the artist happens to be a woman, there are also significant obstacles to overcome in a system that favours and empowers men. The Writer reflects our current interest in sexual misconduct and gender inequality to tell the story of a young writer whose early encounter with a sleazy male director and later a passive-aggressive boyfriend affect her work and emotional development. While she actively rejects many of the social expectations placed on women and embarks on what seems a more contented path, she cannot quite escape the expectations of others and her own self-sabotage as reality fails to match the world of fiction she wants to create.
Hickson uses an abstract approach that constantly keeps the audience guessing about the nature of truth and fictionalised versions of it. The Writer opens with a post-show confrontation between an audience member who claims to have left a bag in the auditorium (Lara Rossi) and a member of the crew (Samuel West) who asks her opinion of this hit show and receives a lengthy and impassioned diatribe about theatre reflecting the sullied gaze of the male director who sexualises his female, but not male, actors, patriarchal blocks to the progression of women, the overly middle-class subject matter and attendance at theatres, as well as the desperation of men who marry much younger women. At one point, the nameless audience member astutely remarks that whenever a woman walks on stage we instantly assess her attractiveness and clothes, but when a man walks on we wonder what he’s going to say.
It’s a great scene, uncomfortably long for some as we learn why the conversation becomes increasingly embittered, but Hickson prevents it from being too one-sided, subtly shifting sympathies between the two sides before delivering a knock-out blow. It’s a discussion many women in theatre have longed to have and to see it played out onstage feels significant. With the house lights staying up for the first two scenes on a virtually bare stage, there is no artifice, and the company are eager for us to know that the audience is equally complicit in the prolongation of this aspect of the industry.
And Hickson maintains this energy through the next two scenes. As we discover that what we have just witnessed is part of a play written by another writer about her own experience (played by Romola Garai) the scene dissolves into a Q&A in which the ‘real’ overbearing Director gives her pretentious and patronising notes. This is followed by a deliberately artificial scene in which the audience watches the stage crew construct the set, before the Writer goes home to pressure from her boyfriend to commercialise her work, get married and have children because these are the ‘expected’ measures of a successful life.
Blanche McIntyre takes an alternative approach to staging each new section which comments on the variety of ways in which real life is filtered into different kinds of theatre, making it harder to tell which parts of the play represent reality or its reconstruction, all of which are interesting viewing. The purposeful artifice of the boyfriend scene is particularly effective, not just in drawing attention to the pressure of social expectation and how one couple could have such opposing approaches to the same circumstances, but also emphasising the idea of constant female (and to some extent male) performance in society, expected to dress, look, sound and even think a certain way, and the exhaustion that engenders.
So, by the play’s midpoint, you’re convinced that The Writer is an innovatively envisioned and mind-expanding piece of work that uses the very idea of theatre to explore the pain of female creativity within our socially constructed value system. But then it starts to unravel, with a confused second half that removes the male characters almost completely to focus on the Writer’s journey of self-discovery. It takes her into a more satisfying emotional and sexual connection with another woman but lacks a coherent link with the power of what’s come before.
The tone switches completely and a new form of theatrical presentation is used for the fourth scene as the Writer calls on the style of Greek mythology to offer a third person narrative of her experience of retreat from reality. She finds both love and a sense of calm, told using a bit of physical theatre, complete blackout and swirling video design designed by Zakk Hein. Despite openly acknowledging the scene’s flaws in one of the many meta-theatre references, as the ground shifts from under the audience’s feet, you can actively feel a lot of the room disengaging with the production and no one’s quite sure what this is about any more, Arguably, distancing you from what has come before is exactly the point, Hickson actively wants to push you out and shake your complacency, but its less clear what she wants you to take from this part of the production.
The final section almost exactly mirrors the earlier boyfriend scene, using a similar approach to uncover the Writer’s own relationship with a partner but in new circumstances. Its still artificial but in a much classier and more expensive-looking set which, again, we watch the crew construct before us. However, this time, the purpose is slightly more opaque, and while there’s a connection to the idea of cost referenced earlier, and the difficulty of being with someone who cannot understand the creative process, this scene is rather ponderous. A couple of sex scenes, some silent eating – which admittedly hardly anyone does on stage – and lots of pauses don’t quite do enough to join-up the various bits of the show. It sends the audience away slightly frustrated because The Writer has front-loaded the most powerful sections and left a somewhat diluted ending that will take away from the important point the play is making about women in theatre, as well as, unfortunately, giving others a reason to dismiss it.
The inherent strangeness of the show is one of its strengths, and, as we saw with The Treatment, heightened reality is something that the Almeida is quite adept at presenting. McIntyre directs creatively, not allowing the multiple-staging techniques and Anna Fleischel’s exciting flat-pack set to distract from the central purpose. McIntrye also balances the transition between the layered scenes, offering a clarity to the Russian doll-like distillation of argument as Hickson uses her the fictional Writer played by Garai as her mouthpiece, while she in turn uses her own creation played by Rossi to open the debate.
As the protagonist, Garai presents a woman – if indeed each scene is the same woman – who has endured all the hurts and frustrations the industry can inflict, and while we see a slightly timid person learning to defend herself against these external assaults, its always clear how profoundly the initial encounter with the Director has shaped her. As we know from her other work, the subject matter is something Garai is passionate about and she uses that anger to great effect to rail against other people’s expectations and their failure to recognise her own essential difference. The purpose of the final section is an enigma, but Garai here makes her character less sympathetic, as though the she’s now enjoying a selfish freedom that makes her unable to connect to others.
It’s always a pleasure to watch a Samuel West performance and here he takes on the duel role of the fictional Director in the first scene and the real Writer’s boyfriend. As the former, he has an easy charm, displaying a comfort in his own skin that reflect a certain type of powerful man. During the sparky confrontation that opens the play, his quips and sense of detached amusement almost win you over, and you see why these figures have remained unchallenged for so long. As the boyfriend, he is equally engaging but offers a gentler portrait of a good man, accepting of life’s unglamourous reality and unable to really understand his partner’s creative scruples.
Rossi’s fictional Writer opens the play with a strong performance delivering a credible and heated speech that will resonate, possibly unnervingly, with many in the room. But there is a vulnerability too as Rossi slowly introduces her character’s backstory that gives nuance to what could be an unrelenting force. As the real Director, Michael Gould is initially condescending and dismissive, but in a later scene reveals his own inability to explain his own emotions, to praise someone he admires hinting at the persona he too must project to maintain his status.
The Writer is a show about women, made by women celebrating the creative strength of women which is still all to rare on any stage. But for all its use of technique and intelligent staging, only half the production really delivers its intellectual and political purpose with significant vigour, while the remainder doesn’t quite feel as impactful. This is, and should be, a show that will divide audiences, but while The Writer is pointed social commentary, it also has dramatic flaws that start to put out its own fire.