2016 Theatre in Review: Female Playwrights


So, end of the year always screams ‘best of’ lists. But rather than offer up to the world yet another rather arbitrary top ten list, I thought I’d revisit an old favourite – the fate of female playwrights. Or, specifically, how female playwrights have fared at those six major London theatres where I spend most of my time – the NT (obvs), Old Vic, Young Vic, Royal Court, Donmar and the Almeida.

Now, it’s been well over a year since the last post I wrote about the dearth of work and platforms for female playwrights on the London stage. That post kicked up a bit of a firestorm for me personally, and fed into a developing wider debate on diversity and inclusion in theatre (or, specifically, the utter lack of it). So, revisiting the topic 20 months and a whole lot of debate later, has the situation for female playwrights actually improved?

Bluntly, no.

Depressing as hell. For all the talk, the situation on the ground for female playwrights ain’t great. I’ve heard comments – including from notable Artistic Directors – that these things take time. I have no idea why that is because, and I’ll throw this wild assertion out there, women didn’t take up writing plays in the past eighteen months. We have been writing plays for, you know, like, years. So, if you’re really struggling to find quality work from female playwrights, I’m telling you that you ain’t looking hard enough.

The specifics are below but obvs let’s caveat it all with the usual points. Yes, my survey is restricted to just these six theatres because, well, you have to draw a line somewhere and I’m not getting paid for this (and I am supposed to be working on my own writing, you know. But hey, well done me for ‘proving my worth’ as a blogger by adding a think-piece rather than ‘simply’ a review, which apparently is how you meet certain other people’s expectations for you as a blogger these days).

But anyway, all that aside, it has to be said that the Big Six I’ve selected are, pretty much, the Big Six. If female playwrights aren’t doing well at these theatres, well, they’re not doing well full stop.

Also, I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve missed something out but you’d have to find a hell of a lot of holes in the following to actually be able to suggest that the state of play is rosy for female playwrights. Argue all you want about plans, emphasis and ideas for the future but facts speak for themselves.

And, please, no more shooting the messenger. Be angry all you want with the below but this isn’t my fault, OK? However, if the below is unclear, that probably is my fault so you can have a go at me for that…

And, as with my previous article, I also put a big umbrella statement over the below by acknowledging that there are intersectional issues too. Female playwrights have had few opportunities, but most of the shows that were put on were written by White female playwrights. Plays from Women of Colour are finding it even tougher to get seen and heard. 

Royal Court

Right, well let’s at least start in a good place – the Royal Court. You could argue that having a female Artistic Director would make the push to platform female playwrights more explicit. Well, kids, if you think that, check out the theatre at the bottom of this list. No, that wouldn’t be fair to reduce this to that (and misogyny can be found in women too). Instead Vicky Featherstone deserves explicit praise for her platforming of female playwrights.

The Royal Court put on thirteen plays in 2016, eight of which were written by women. That’s a great ratio in itself but I’m particularly pleased to emphasise that of the six plays that ran on the main stage this year, four of them were written by women (Escaped Alone, Ophelia’s Zimmer, The Children, Father Comes Home).

It’s not uncommon for women ‘not to be trusted’ with delivering on the main stages and, instead, shuffled off into minor stages to at least tick boxes but not, you know, ‘risk’ them. Not here, not at the Royal Court.

And there’s also a great blend of established names (hello, Caryl) big names continuing their development (Alice Birch, Lucy Kirkwood, E.V. Crowe) and new names breaking through (Charlene James – Cuttin’ It, Anna Jordan – Yen).

Bravo Royal Court.

Young Vic Theatre

But after the high point of the Royal Court, well, it all deteriorates from there really. And, rather surprisingly, that includes the Young Vic.

Eighteen plays put on at the Young Vic this year and, initially, seeing eight of those plays with women as writers or co-writers doesn’t seem too bad. But here is where you do need to look closely at the details supporting those clinical facts.

Only three of those plays were original plays by solo female playwrights – Charlene James’ Cuttin It, debbie tucker green’s trade, and Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. (And worth noting trade was not open for reviews as it was directed by Bryony Shanahan, winner of a 2016 Genesis Future Directors Award. And of those two that were open for review, neither were shown on the Main Stage.)

The remaining five were co-writing credits, such as Queens of Syria and Now We Were Here, based on interviews with refugees, and adaptations such as Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing and Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s adaptation of Battlefield. The fifth show was the musical entertainment, Jane Horrocks’ If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and I’m not wholly sure whether we consider that an original play or not.

But either way, eight from eighteen may seem OK, but not great when you realise only one of those was on the main stage – If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me – and, even then, I’m not convinced that counts as a play. And then when you look at the other seven, you don’t see those shows as being a raft of female playwrights given the opportunity to express themselves with fresh, original work.

I do feel a little over-critical perhaps, especially as the two plays with refugees were worthwhile, but it seems as if these shows are being made to count as ‘female playwrights’ as in, they were largely female voices and they weren’t written by men. However, I’m anxious that the ‘female playwrights’ box doesn’t become defined simply as ‘not men’.

If we were, brutally, to cut down the Young Vic’s schedule and see how many original plays from female playwrights were platformed, we’re looking at three, maybe four, if you include A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

And that isn’t great returns.

National Theatre

Nick Hytner did nothing for female playwrights – he seemed to have an aversion to them that was almost phobic – so I think we were all hopeful for things to change with Rufus Norris in the Artistic Director’s chair. I’ve seen a couple of pieces that have lauded Rufus for his exciting start. Well, maybe they see something that I don’t because when you look at the cold hard facts, it’s slow progress for female playwrights at the NT atm.

There were (about) twenty-two shows put on across the National Theatre in 2016 (I say, ‘about’ as I may have missed off a couple in The Shed). How many of these do you think were written by a single female playwright – as in, no collaborations, no co-writing? How many?

Four. Just four.

Four out of twenty-two. That’s bad. That’s really bad.

Those shows, btw, were Les Blancs, The Suicide, Cleansed and The Flick. A Pacifist’s Guide and wonder.land had Bryony Kimmings and Moira Buffini listed as co-writers. But even if you were generous and included them, six is still no good. Nowhere near good enough.

And, more than this, the NT kept the main stage almost entirely for men with only Lorraine Hansberry’s  Les Blancs and Moira Buffini’s co-written wonder.land running at the Olivier. The other plays were shuffled off to the Lyttleton and the Dorfman.

Everywhere else it was men, men, men. Yes, there were revivals of Rattigan, Sean O’Casey and Peter Schaffer. But even when we had the Chekhov adaptations (admittedly transferring from Chichester), it was David Hare who adapted them. As he did with The Red Barn too. I mean, consider that – David Hare with his three Chekhovs and Red Barn got as much work at the NT in 2016 as female playwrights overall.

Crazy, just crazy. 

Just as an aside, it’s not as if this was made up for, in some way, with more female directors. Of the twenty-two plays produced this year, only seven were directed by women (an eighth, A Pacifists Guide, a co-production). Again, way short of even half.

The NT has a lot of pressure on it to be leading the way, and it’s important that it does not lose focus on gender diversity in creatives as, atm, it’s way off the mark. A long way to go.

Almeida Theatre

2016 saw no change in the Almeida’s tricky relationship with female playwrights with only one play coming from a woman this year in the shape of Ella Hickson’s Oil.

I’ve a feeling the theatre will point out the fact that it did do a Shakespeare in 2016 and there was also the tail end of its Chekhov Season at the beginning of the year, which made it difficult to give women more work. The question is, how much latitude do you give a theatre that doesn’t seek to address this imbalance by, say, putting on TWO new plays by women as well. A whole two plays from women; scary stuff, I know.

The Almeida is also behind the curve on the wider diversity front, generally, as not only is there a poor return for female playwrights but, pretty much across the board, its key creatives are White. Rupert Goold does need to start making an explicit effort to address its gender imbalance and its lack of inclusion as it is ongoing and glaring.

But I also point out that my two favourite shows there this year – Boy, Oil – were both directed by women. I do sense a glimmer of progress at the Almeida as it’s making all the right noises but it’s not coming through for female playwrights as yet.

Old Vic Theatre

When Matthew Warchus took over at the Old Vic, I thought he was putting down a marker by ensuring that his first play, Future Conditional, was written by a woman (Tamsin Oglesby). After all, Kevin Spacey did fuck all for female playwrights, platforming a play written by a solo female playwright only once – ONCE – in his ten years in charge.

But it turns out that this might have been over hopeful as it’s been really bad for the Old Vic and female playwrights this year. And when I say really bad, I mean pretty much nothing. All there was for women playwrights this year was the revival of Yasmina Reza’s ART, and that (as most of you know) was translated by Christopher Hampton anyway, so, well, what does that say?

Everything else – absolutely everything else – saw men with writing duties, from David Grieg’s The Lorax to Rubin/Minchin’s Groundhog Day and Drew McOnie’s reworking of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Even when the theatre looked to adapt Ibsen (The Master Builder), they decided (for reasons I will never understand) to turn to that radical voice of the anti-establishment again, David Hare. (David Hare had a good year, didn’t he? It pays to be a white upper class man in theatre, obviously)

This does not bode well at all. I had hoped a change in regime would lead to a change in fortunes for female playwrights at the Old Vic but these paltry returns are worrying signs.

Donmar Warehouse

But in spite of the desperately poor showing at the Old Vic, easily securing its place at the bottom of the table is Josie Rourke’s Donmar Warehouse, who managed to put on absolutely zero plays written by women in 2016. Not even a name in a collaboration or adaptation. Well done, Donmar. *slow hand clap*

Now, I have no idea what Josie Rourke has got against female playwrights but this is not unchartered territory for her. It took her almost four years to put on a play written by a woman, and when she finally did it, the honour went to established writer Abi Morgan for Splendour. But since that watershed moment, well, it has been a barren land.

So, for all the furore about the all-female Shakespeare trilogy and the theatre’s admirable support for female directors (of the six plays shown at the Donmar this year, five were directed by women) there seems to be no room at this inn for female playwrights. No idea why that is – someone ask Josie Rourke, not me.

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