WOMEN REDRESSED, ARTS THEATRE - Review

Organised by Sheer Height Theatre, Women Redressed is a two-night theatre festival that showcases pieces of writing that challenge perceptions and expectations of gender. Sheer Height's initial call for suitable material and participants attracted a deluge of play submissions, and interest from numerous female directors and actors. The festival ran at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport St, London to full houses on the 9th and 16th of November, 2015.

For each of the evenings there were seven short plays or excerpts of plays that had an outstanding feminist pedigree. Rather than write about the 16th November event (which I attended) in exhaustive detail, I shall try to highlight interesting aspects of the evening.

In many companies –  especially U.S. firms –  there is concern over the potential threat of being sued for sexual harassment, and as such, 'fraternisation' with colleagues of the opposite sex is discouraged, except on a platonic level. The first play of the evening, Contractions (by Mike Bartlett, extract directed by Eloise Lally) was a satire that touched on this subject and how something that's meant to minimise litigation can be taken by a corporation to pry into its employees' lives. Emma (Stella Taylor) is called before a manager (Victoria Vardy) and enquries are made about a nascent relationship she has with Darren, a co-worker. Denying it's anything but meaningful, Emma assauges the concern of about where the relationship is going. Over time, the relationship gets serious, but Emma asserts it isn't romantic, it's "just sex." But the manager has heard news to the contrary... While the play highlights the intrusion into employee's lives, it is Emma who is periodically brought in for questioning, as if it is her sole responsibility for this occurrence. And if women are 'policing' the actions of women in this fashion, where does it end? A very strong start to the evening. 

The second play of the evening was a piece of new writing by Zoe Thomas-Webb. Made Up (directed by Tania Azevedo) recalled the events that led to Sally (Soraya Spiers) meeting and marrying her husband. Beginning as an upbeat, entertaining confessional, Spiers continued to apply make-up throughout, as if getting ready to go out. However as the monologue progressed, details of Sally's husband's violent nature surfaced and in tandem with this, the make-up applied on this stage was made to look bruises. Spiers' performance was outstanding, piquing the audience's interest from start to finish and by the end, the audience is as emotionally bruised as Spiers is literally.

The evening's second extract from an established play came from Rebecca Lenkiewicz's Her Naked Skin. Directed by Rebecca Rogers, it follows a similar route to the high-profile Suffragette movie out at the moment, except instead of being from the point of view of one fictitious suffragette, it is from two – upper class Celia Cain (Charlotte Couture) and working class Eve Douglas (Jenny Wilford).

The tearoom where Eve and Celia meet is one of the venues where 'high society' meets and Celia's keen not to be seen by her peers. Then the penny drops – Eve realises Celia doesn't want to spend time or be seen with her anymore. As sisters in arms they were close, but in recent months they also conducted a lesbian affair. For married Celia it was an intense, but unplanned "experience", but for Eve, it meant the world to her. While Lenkiewicz doesn't explicitly point the finger of blame at Celia, she does show that for the likes of Eve, their relationship was another facet of celebrating women's sisterhood and like the suffrage cause, was an 'all or nothing' affair. It wasn't something Eve could switch off when she was 'bored' and she had no polite society to hide one's 'transgressions'.

Both Wilford and Couture totally inhabited their roles with Couture's body language saying more about Celia's conflicted feelings than her words signifed, while the pain that Eve felt was palpable and present in Wilford's gaze. Incidently, Lenkiewicz's play (which was performed at the National Theatre in 2008) was only the third play by a female writer to be produced there, and the first original play by a female writer, as the first two were adaptations: Pam Gems' adaptation of The Seagull in 1991, and Helen Edmundson's Coram Boy in 2005. Even forward-thinking institutions like the National Theatre are prone to lapse of judgement...

From the harsh realities of the early 1900s to a symbolic dreamland, Sleeper's Diner (by Amie Taylor, directed by Tutku Barbaros) couldn't have been more different. The moon, the subsconscious and bed/sleep have long been potent feminine symbols in cultures worldwide. In Amie Taylor's short play which kicked off the second half of the evening, Lela (Jade Jordan) wakes up to find herself in a dreamtime limbo, a resort that's populated by people the world over whenever they sleep.  Diner manager Vi (Jeryl Burgess) is her guide during this nocturnal odyssey and explains to Leia why the loud business men in this nocturnal no-man's land 'can't' see her. As interesting as she finds this place, Leia wants to depart, but like the Eagles' song Hotel California, she finds "You can check our anytime you like, but you can never leave..."

The final play of the evening (Nine Weeks by Gillian Park, directed by Hannah Sharkey), touched upon the potentially thorny issue of abortion, in a darkly comic fashion. Stacey Davenport (Ashley) and Phoebe Ladenburg (Rebecca) played two young women at a clinic who are there regarding the termination of their respective pregnancies. Stacey, the younger of the two is on the surface more blasé about it, while Rebecca is more naturally taciturn. However each has their story to tell  and nothing is as straightforward as it seems.

Managing a team of more than 50 people, Sheer Height's Women Redressed involved  27 actors, 14 directors and 10 writers. The event succeeded in getting more female (and male) writers to write plays that contributed to the discussion of gender inequality and depict well-rounded, complex female characters that passed the Bechdel test, instead of re-hashing gender stereotypes.

Judging by the scale of interest and success of the Women Redressed festival, I have no doubt that it will become a regular fixture in the theatrical calendar.

In the interest of completeness, here are the details regarding the plays performed and those that took part over the two evenings:

WOMEN REDRESSED LINE-UP 9th November 2015

GREY MATTERS by Roger Goldsmith. Directed by Cat Clancy. Performed by Fiona McGahren and Hilary Burns.

PRO by Rebecca Robinson. Directed by Rebecca Hanbury. Performed by Helen Haines.

THE APPOINTMENT by Tessa Hart. Directed by Kasia Rozycki. Performed by Sadie Clark, Georgie Grier and Louis Cardona.

WANTED by Sophie Alderson. Directed by Julie Addy. Performed by Katy Helps and Sarah Langrish-Smith.

WISDOM by Michael Horace. Directed by Justin Murray. Performed by Eleanor Crosswell and Tom Wharnsby.

DI AND VIV AND ROSE by Amelia Bullmore. Extract directed by Jo Greaves. Performed by Jennifer Evans, Emma Drinkwater-James and Rea Mole.

IT FELT EMPTY WHEN THE HEART... by Lucy Kirkwood. Extract directed by Scott Hurran. Performed by Anita-Joy Awajeh and Kasha Bajor.  

WOMEN REDRESSED LINE-UP 15th November 2015

CONTRACTIONS [extract] by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Eloise Lally. Performed by Stella Taylor and Victoria Hardy.

MADE UP by Zoe Thomas-Webb. Directed by Tania Azevedo. Performed by Soraya Spiers.

HER NAKED SKIN [extract] by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Directed by Rebecca Rogers. Performed by Charlotte Couture, Jenny Wilford, Jasmine Blackborow and Tommy Love.

SERVING THE NATION by Colette Flanagan. Directed by Anoushka Bonwick. Performed by Kirsty Mann.

SLEEPER'S DINER by Amie Taylor. Directed by Tutku Barbaros. Performed by Jade Jordan and Jeryl Burgess.

All GROWN UP by Phil Lindsey. Directed by Katie-Ann McDonagh. Performed by Thea Balich and Grace Lewis.

NINE WEEKS by Gillian Park. Directed by Hannah Sharkey. Performed by Stacey Davenport and Phoebe Ladenburg.

© Michael Davis 2015

Author's review: 
5