Ella Hickson's new play is a beautiful savage mess of a thing. It is a ferocious attempt to rip apart the form of the play, for the writer to try creatively to think beyond her own abilities and her learned skill as a maker of plays. It is a piece of despairing utopianism; the play hates where we are and tries to imagine somewhere else and is really not at all sure it has succeeded or that it can succeed. In that sense, it feels to me like it captures a pretty important structure of feeling for what it's like being a progressive in England now.
SPOILERY DESCRIPTION: The play begins after a play. A young woman has come back into the theatre to retrieve her bag and encounters the director and she lets him know what she thought of the play in no uncertain terms. We then discover that scene is a work in progress of an unfinished play by the writer. Then follows a domestic scene between the writer and her boyfriend, in which they have sex and row about her reluctance to turn her play into a lucrative movie. The writer then describes a poetic journey into a wilderness where she discovers sex with a woman for the first time. The potential director of the play the writer is writing doesn't like this scene, considering it undramatic and he urges her to write an ending. The final scene is set in an expensive apartment, where the writer and her lesbian partner live. They have sex and then have sex again with a dildo, which seems to disturb her girlfriend. The play ends with an image juxtaposing creativity and brutality.
I think what I most liked about this play is the feeling it embodies. Its mixture of rage and frustration, it yearns for a better world but keeps bumping its head on this one. It proceeds by a kind of via negativa, continually undermining itself. The first scene turns out to be a try-out piece of theatre where the writing has been shaped to suit the dramaturgical preferences of its director. But the scene at home, though plausibly meant to be real, also feels rather sculptured, rather too neat, a little sitcommy - and the director prowls around the action, watching it from all sides, seemingly bending it to his will. The most liberated part takes the action into this magic realist entrance into an imagined or recollected pure femininity (see below). We slip from Goodge Street to the jungle, from work to love, from hurry to timelessness. And then that, too, seems to be a draft of something about which the Director is pretty scornful - and, daringly, she gives the director a good hearing as he attacks the very play we're watching. And so finally, we get the last scene that the Director has been asking for and its status is also ambiguous: its effectively an expensive, lesbian rewrite of the previous scene with the boyfriend. It flirts with inauthenticity, of the failed gesture, sketching out a scene in the absence of what might be represented beyond it; within the scene, it seems to ask if in our society sex of whatever kind risks tending towards mimicking heterosexual power dynamics, and drama risks tending towards conventional play dynamics. Its another scene under its own erasure.
This could easily feel very in-jokey and the theatre contemplating its own navel. And, sure, there is an element of that. But what lifts it beyond that is the vivid articulation of the writer's fears and hopes for her writing and her demands for her own wildly free expression as a direct response to the state of her own selfhood and to the state of the world. It's a feminist play, of course, but its tone and thought shifts from the #MeToo fury of the first scene to the middle section's pure femininity, in the sense that the French feminists of the 1970s called écriture feminine: not the masculine ascription of foursquare meanings to words, organised in logical, unambiguous forms, but a feminine, pre-Oedipal maternal sensuality about bodies and words and endless shimmering meanings. The final scene returns us to an anxious working through of power and its intimacy. These multiply erased scenes, these provisional scenes, these ironic scenes, they're all tearing things down to see what lies beyond. It's a close cousin of Alice Birch's similarly provisional and self-destructive and apocalyptic Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, a totemic play of this decade.
So is this a good play? The Writer makes that question wonderfully hard to answer. The Director says that the first scene is the best - and he says that because it engages in crisp debate and dialectic, with pretty clear psychological through-lines, and a big plot reveal two-thirds of the way through. And so, 'technically', it sort of is the best scene. But the Q&A scene that follows is much subtler and funnier in its observation of how men and women (sometimes) talk to each other. The scene in the wilderness is rich and haunting. The final scene is bleak and unsettling and questioning. And these other scenes are all interesting in very different ways from the clear debate structure of the first scene.
I wrote a blog last year about Max Stafford-Clark and the revelations of his sexually predatory behaviour, noting that his method of 'actioning' (divining the subtextual actions brought about by each line of dialogue) meant that he, more than most, would know exactly what he was doing with his mischievously malicious sexual remarks. After it appeared, the director Paul Miller (of the Orange Tree) got in touch privately to say he thought I should have gone further. For him, Stafford-Clark's 'actioning' seems predicated on the idea that we are all predators: that whatever we say is always doing something to someone else. We are seducing or fooling or crushing or persuading one another. It says we can never be honest or truthful because there's always something nastier going on. Of course there are milder and more loving kinds of 'action' but actioning tends to be most powerful in the rehearsal room when it 'reveals' a darker purpose beneath an innocent line and all too often that type of directing makes the characters prowl territorially around the stage emotionally fucking each other up. Paul Miller is right; it's a cynical and aggressive view of the world - and Hickson asks us if it's also a male view of the world.
It's a good question and one we should take seriously. Not that women can't do that too (and of course, not all men, yada yada), but it's a bantery, aggressive behaviour that treats the other person as a kind of object to be plundered. And the way our world works, most people who get to do that are men. And it's challenging for me, because I teach playwriting, and I'm always asking my student what their characters are doing in their acts of dialogue.
Hickson is a very talented writer - and so, of course, she is good at writing those scenes. The first scene is gripping and funny; which is why she gets that over with, undercuts it, and moves on. This hasn't stopped some critics simply affirming that it's the best scene. But that's to stubbornly refuse to go on this play's journey - and I can see why you might not; the continual iteration of scenes and their undercutting make this a dramaturgically harrowing experience, the bottom continually falling out of the play. But if you do follow her across that river, you find that somehow, Hickson holds it together by, it seems, sheer force of will, and verbal power, and the heat of passion and hope and disappointment and despair.
Blanche McIntyre's production is perfectly judged. This is not, I think, an easy play to direct. It could have fallen massively on its face, because the play almost wants itself to fail, its wants the failure of our dreams to be written across its structure. It's a play that flirts with nihilism: political, cultural, sexual, dramaturgical. But by stripping things back to their dramatic basics, by working the theatrical magic and undermining it and revelling in it again, she makes it a beautiful intricate puzzle box, the solution of which is the end of this world. The actors commit to this bright experiment of a play with absolute commitment. Romola Garai finds steel in amongst all the anguish as she longs for something sacred and perfect, just a bit of awe, in the theatre. Lara Rossi is fierce in the first scene, moodily powerful in the last, the moral heart of the play throughout. The guys - Michael Gould and Sam West - precisely identify and embody the hideous behaviour of Nice Men In Positions Of Power (I don't exclude myself from this accusation by the way).
There are moments throughout where I cringed at my own attitudes and behaviour. There were moments I felt self-righteous and moments I felt desperately moved and moments I wanted to cheer and moments I wanted to hide. The total gesture of the play is inspiring and magnificent and the feeling, the feeling, the feeling just felt like 2018 distilled. I love this play.