Upstaged: Women

Upstaged: Women

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 06/03/12

This Thursday is International Women's Day. To celebrate, our theatre editor is casting off those cuddly, conniving, cute, cackling stereotypes to ask, where are the real women taking to the stage today...?

Jerry Hall’s mother was an asshat. And you can quote me on that.

Any woman who says you must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom needs to get out of the house.

Sadly, that these thunderingly dull female stereotypes are about as interesting and useful as a blow-up turd sometimes escapes the attention of male playwrights, casting agents and artistic directors. I’m sure we’ve all seen otherwise brilliant women, shoe-horned into the part of “third fat girl from the left,” “cuddly old dear” or “scheming bitch” in a variety of classic and otherwise much-loved shows. And I, for one, am bored of it.

When someone like Terrence Rattigan, a man born in 1911, could write a character as beguiling, complex, subtle and shaded as Edith Davenport in Cause Célèbre, or Samuel Beckett, a man born in 1906, could write a woman as brilliantly and jabberingly odd as Winnie, buried up to her neck in sand in Happy Days, then there’s no excuse for modern playwrights to regress to the old slut, virgin, mother archetypes.

Of course, we all know what the problem is. It’s that not enough women are writing plays. Not because we’re all so busy slutting it up in the kitchen and peeling carrots in the bedroom, thank God. But for a whole cornucopia of reasons so subtle and unnoticed that no one can quite agree what they are. Certainly, risking everything on the dream of future success seems to be something women are slightly more reticent about than their male counterparts – if the statistics about how the recession is adversely affecting women are to be believed. Which makes dedicating yourself to the uncertain and sometimes poverty-inducing life of a playwright rather less attractive.

Also, the theatre is an industry in which for years women were either considered disreputable (see the use of actress as a pseudonym for prostitute), unnecessary or unwelcome. While very few people working in theatre today would happily admit to such feelings, the all-male companies, the gossip about female cast members and bitchy attitude to women of a certain age can all club together to create a vague feeling of hostility.

Which is a shame, to say the least. Last week I went to see Purge at The Arcola. Written by Sofi Oksanen, it is a play in which the female characters are by far the most interesting and robust. The main character is – whisper it – an old woman. She is clever, cunning, kind, cruel and, at one point, gets down to her underwear. Of course, you couldn’t have a character like that in every play (it would bring a slightly odd tang to, say, Waiting for Godot if Purge’s Illona Linthwaite stumbled on in her bra, wielding a stick) but as an approach to character and story, it is to be admired.

So, this International Women’s Day, let’s forget about the salt-of-the-earth cleaners, the soft-bosomed wives, the sexy women in bars and the gaggle of witches. Let’s celebrate the real women who are creating brilliant plays, complex characters, engaging stories and hilarious moments on stages across the world.

Happy International Women’s day, bitches.


Illustration by Narcsville.


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