We interviewed CultureClash Theatre last year whilst their play Hannah and Hanna was running at the Fringe. This year they're back, and currently performing a new piece 'Under My Thumb' at Greenwich Theatre. This week Female Arts' Amie Taylor ran a Q and A with Serin Ibrahim and Cassie Hercules of CultureClash Theatre.
AT: Tell us a little about CultureClash and their company ethos...
CC: CultureClash Theatre (founded and run by me, Serin Ibrahim, and my co-director Cassandra Hercules) is a new theatre company launched to celebrate and present theatre that engages with contemporary social and political issues. Our debut production, Hannah and Hanna, won the Mark Ralston Enterprise Award and transferred to London after an acclaimed run at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Under My Thumb is our second production, and we are delighted to have secured funding from Arts Council England to develop the script and the production for this first short run of performances.
We want to create theatre that challenges our social consciousness and explores issues through the eyes and mouths of those most marginalised in our society and in parallel societies around the world, with a particular focus on women’s experience. We choose to open the debate on issues others shy away from.
We are supported by Greenwich Theatre, our co-producer on our latest show, and we are the first company to perform in the new Greenwich Theatre studio.
AT: Why did you choose to work on Under My Thumb?
CC: Cassiah Joski-Jethi’s dark, satirical drama first came to our attention when Cassiah submitted a 20 minute version to the inaugural RED Women’s Theatre Awards at the beginning of this year. A showcase reading of that short version was presented at Greenwich Theatre, directed by Amie Taylor, and the script stood out for its bold conceit – a “what if” version of the world where women who speak out against abuse of any kind are imprisoned and only released if they take personal responsibility for their experiences, acknowledging that their choice of clothes led to the actions taken against them, that their allegations of abuse are fabricated, that their lack of career progression in relation to men is appropriate and not something they should complain about.
I was lucky enough to be part of the first ever reading of the play along with five brilliant actors. Cassie and I were looking for a writer for our next piece and after meeting with Cassiah we thought we were a great match. The play answered our search for a piece of new writing that gives a voice to a marginalised community, and that finds and champions the hidden strength of those oppressed by dominant, discriminatory regimes.
The experiences of the women in the play reflect the kind of stories of discrimination that we hear all too often. There is unlikely to be a single woman in this country who has not encountered sexism in her life, from cat-calling to discrimination at work, experience of gendered abusive language to unwanted advances from a colleague, family member, friend of stranger, and the situation in various countries around the world is even worse. You only have to switch on the TV to see real life cases of sexism and gender specific discrimination. Whether it's the Stanford Rape case or the case of Nicola Thorp, the receptionist sent home from work for refusing to wear heels, women are being discriminated against every day in our society.
AT: What's it about?
CC: Set in a dystopian version of the present, in an unspecified place, five women are imprisoned for crimes against society. Brought together by a common enemy and facing indefinite incarceration, the one dignity remaining to them is their continuing belief in their own innocence. The play follows the fallout from the arrival of a sixth prisoner. The arrival of yet another inmate seems no surprise, just another woman brought down by the world outside, but is she all that she seems?
The play presents a classic but all too credible picture of how the world could look if history had taken a slightly different course, or if the future takes a turn for the worse. “What if” the double standards applied to Nicola Thorp were to be accepted into wider society, and “what if” it became a legal requirement to abide by laws based on principles of inequality, and “what if” women who spoke out against the status quo could only avoid censure if they accepted the error of their ways? Then we would find ourselves in the frightening world of Under My Thumb.
However, what the play is not about is the evil of masculinity versus some kind of angelic femininity. It is about the creation of a system that divides men and women and their social, professional and familial roles in society. There are too many women in our society who are prepared to accept a position of subservience of objectification, and even to perpetuate it, by not speaking out or by accepting and endorsing the gender imbalance, so rather than a story about men versus women this is a play about oppression and hope.
AT: What do you think audiences will take away from watching?
CC: We think the audience will be provoked into rethinking events from their everyday life. So far, feedback has shown that audiences believe in and share the message of equality that the play presents, but too many people still experience small moments of discrimination and shrug them off. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have worn that’, ‘it’s just what those people are like, they don’t mean anything by it’ or ‘maybe I just need to work harder to prove myself’.
We hope the audience members, both male and female, will go away with a challenging and honest reminder of contemporary gender issues, relayed to them through a powerful story about female integrity, about women who refuse to bow to discrimination whatever the consequence.
AT: Why is it an important piece for 2016?
CC: In June this year we brought together the current cast of Under My Thumb (all GSA MA Acting graduates) for three days of Research and Development with the writer. All the talk in the rehearsal room was of Brexit, the fall-out from the vote, and the subsequent appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister. At the same time Hillary Clinton was competing in, and is arguably now leading, the race for the most powerful political office in the world. As much as we would all like to believe that gender equality has now been achieved, three months later when we reconvened to rehearse this production, one of the big news stories that influenced rehearsal discussion was about Nicola Thorp, the woman sent home from her job at one of this country’s leading financial corporations for refusing to wear high heels. When she asked why her male colleagues weren’t expected to wear heels, she was laughed at. At the same time the media seem to have developed as much of an obsession with Theresa May’s shoes as her political leadership.
In 2016, almost a century after women were given the vote in this country, we have still not reached the position of equality that we’d all like to hope. Under My Thumb throws that into sharp relief. It provokes us as a society to question the validity and justice of our collective treatment of men and women, but it does so through a powerful, entertaining, challenging evening at the theatre.
Under My Thumb playing until Sunday 2nd October.
Presented by: CultureClash Theatre and Greenwich Theatre
Written by: Cassiah Joski-Jethi
Directed by: James Haddrell
Cast includes: Jessica Aquilina Alice De-Warrenne Charlotte Green Sian Eleanor Green Cassandra Hercules Serin Ibrahim
Performance times: Tue-Sat 7.45pm Sat Mat 2.45pm (24 Sep) Sun Mat 4.30pm (2 Oct)
Ticket prices: £11 (£10 ticket plus £1 booking fee)
Suitable for ages: 16+ (contains violence, adult language and sexual references)