Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Theatre review: The Writer

“I’m not sure what that was but I liked it.” That seemed to be the general impression I got from people on Twitter who’d been to see Ella Hickson’s The Writer in previews, and it’s a fair response to a metatextual headfuck of a play that challenges audiences on at least two levels: First by confronting the ongoing discussion around the status of women in the world, and as creatives in theatre in particular, and then by playing with format – but then this structural experiment also folds back into the gender discussion, providing a further looping nature to the way the play works. It plays out in five distinct acts, starting with a confrontation: A young woman (Lara Rossi) goes back into the theatre after a show to collect the bag she’s forgotten, and bumps into the play’s director (Samuel West,) who asks her what she thought.

It turns out the treatment of women in it made her angry, and she vents her frustrations over this and how it reflects on theatre in general; but there’s a personal level at play, as the woman is a writer and the director has forgotten that they’ve met before a few years earlier, when he offered her the chance to write for his theatre - but also made a pass at her.

The first metatheatrical level comes when it’s revealed this has all been a play-within-a-play: Rossi and West have been actors who now take part in a Q&A alongside the real Writer (Romola Garai) and Director (Michael Gould.) It soon becomes obvious there’s been an autobiographical element to the earlier scene and the power imbalance hasn’t ended – the Director in particular is prone to talking over and on behalf of the women (the Q&A’s wildly unrealistic though – there’s plants in the audience asking questions, and none of them opens with “this isn’t really a question, more of a comment…”)

Garai’s Writer is a timid figure, and later the play moves on to see her become more confident in different settings – at home in relationships, first with a man (West) and later with a woman (Rossi,) as well as an extended scene of a pastoral lesbian fantasy, followed by Gould’s Director interjecting with notes on how that won’t really work on stage. The Director can sometimes be seen in the background of the more naturalistic scenes, putting a spin on how literally we’re meant to view them. The play is critical of the Almeida itself and its audience, and there’s some very direct comparisons being made between onstage characters and real people: In the opening scene, one of the young woman’s targets is Laura Wade’s Posh, and how the play was enjoyed by the very people it was intended to eviscerate. Would that have been the example chosen if Rossi wasn’t saying this to Wade’s real-life partner Samuel West?

In terms of the blurring of reality and fiction, the biggest question is surely how far we are meant to equate Gould’s Director character with the Almeida’s actual Artistic Director Rupert Goold? Off the top of my head this is the third Hickson play he’s programmed, and the mention of a gratuitous rape being added to a play is a clear reference to Goold’s Richard III. On the other hand to my knowledge there’s been no #MeToo rumours attached to him, and if we were meant to take everything in the play literally Hickson would also be revealing things about his wife Kate Fleetwood’s private life, and dragging a woman into the argument without her say seems counter to the play’s ethos. I even ended up wondering if casting an actor as the fictional Artistic Director who has a similar surname to the real one was yet another deliberate meta touch. (Not that Gould isn't great in the role; as is Garai in hers, but you can't help noting the fact that she's an actor who's spoken about being Weinsteined, as well as having had an entire book written about what a bitch she is by an old white man. This is the sort of thought process the play's toying with levels of reality sends you off on.)

In other words I’ve got endlessly mentally tangled up by The Writer, which I’m sure is very much the point, and I suspect also has more than a touch of mischief to the way it screws the audience around. After all this is a play that may have a lot of anger but also has a lot of humour in the way it presents it (as well as being educational – who knew lesbian sex involved alternate mouthfuls of curry and vagina?) Director Blanche McIntyre employs a very steady hand that gives you confidence even as the script goes off in unpredictable directions, while Anna Fleischle’s design strips back the stage to the bare walls (again, very current-regime-of-the-Almeida) before throwing in some clever scene changes that follow the play’s style of overt theatricality. In summary, I’m not sure what that was but I liked it.

The Writer by Ella Hickson is booking until the 26th of May at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours straight through.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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