Theatre Review: The Writer, Almeida Theatre ‘Raw, Visceral Feminist Anger’

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It’s been a few days since I saw The Writer, over a week in fact. It’s taken me that long to process all my thoughts and, much like the play itself, my feelings about it still feel fragmented and unorganised. But that won’t make for a great review so let’s bring in some structure and start from the top…

The weekend before I visited the Almeida I was on a panel talking about diversity and inclusion and the question came up, “when was the first time you saw yourself on the stage?” Now, of course the question was a slant as, to the diverse panel, the answer was almost universal – we’re still waiting. What surprised many, I think, was that this was even true to a white middle-class straight woman such as myself.

And I explained that was largely due to the male lens and male creatives dominating theatre to such a suffocating degree that not even a privileged position as mine was being represented with any depth, reality or nuance. So what a shock, what a revelation, the first thirty minutes of The Writer was; so much so that, like I said on Twitter, I wanted to run up on to the stage, drop to my knees and shout, THANK YOU JESUS!

The play starts with an argument. A woman (Lara Rossi) has returned to the theatre auditorium to pick up her bag. The rest of the audience has presumably left, the play now finished, so she takes a sneaky opportunity to walk on to the stage. But she is spotted by the play’s director (Samuel West) who corrals her into a discussion about the play she has just seen.

What follows is a gloriously raw, visceral, feminist anger as Lara rails against the bullshit theatre she has just had to endure. (“I watched an entire audience get on their feet tonight for a show that had a dog in it… With Trump in, with the monstrosities going down, the world is cracking open and what I just saw is meant to heal us? We should be screaming, we should be speaking in tongues, in a fit, in a fucking – rage, naked, raging, arms open, screaming at the sky – There should not be a dog. There should not be a fucking dog.”)

Everything I’ve ever wanted to shout and scream, everything that I too have wanted to rage about in this sexist, elitist, racist, ableist, elitist industry falls in torrents from Lara’s lips. Through her, writer Ella Hicksongives voice to so much that so many women have wanted to rage about for so long. And it’s superbly phrased – poised yet biting – even as she is mocked by the Director in front of her, even patronised and belittled.

And it was this mocking from the man that only fed my own rage more as I sat stewing in my seat, willing Lara on. We’ve all been there, we’ve all had our anger dismissed and marginalised, accused of being hysterical and overreacting. Of even falsehoods and lies. And as Lara keeps battling away, you find yourself rooting so much for her that you want to stand up and cheer her on. Even more so as their conversation heads deep into dangerous territory of harassment and assault.

Then the play suddenly flips (and not for the first time). Something just stops and Lara and the director sort of come to a halt and look out into the middle distance. Then more characters flood the stage and it hits you – we’re in a ‘play within a play’ territory as the writer of this scene, Romola Garai as the titular writer, and her director, Michael Gould, pull up chairs, along with their actors, as if they are a panel at some talk event.

The power (im)balance between this female writer and male director is obvious – Romola sits quivering and unsure of herself at the end of the row as her director routinely cuts her short, corrects her and dominates the panel with his assuredness and his expectation that his words are fact not opinion.

And then it flips again, the scene changes, and the play shoots off at another angle, examining the power structures that exist in our personal relationships as well as our public ones.

Much of the talk around this show has centred on Ella’s writing, which is absolutely fair, but I can’t help feeling that this has unfairly overlooked the blistering contribution from director Blanche Macintyre whose deft touch not only captures and reflects the visceral ‘burn it all down’ ferocity of Ella’s words, but also follows in its path with its middle-fingers-up reflection of the crash-bang-wallop style of many male directors.

Ella’s writing is deliberately scrappy and rough round the edges. Scenes don’t end neatly, and they don’t easily flow from one to the next. Rather than smooth it out, Blanche takes that style and runs with it. Set walls come crashing down as scenes end; the Almeida stage management team rush on to pull up new walls with ropes and pullies; entire sets are rebuilt in front of our eyes.

And the clever thing is, I’m sure I’ve seen this before. Icke’s 1984. The destruction of the nostalgic set and the radical construction of Room 101. Crash, bang, wallop. Is Blanche digging at Icke? After all, that wouldn’t exactly be out of step with the constant digging at the Almeida spirit of The Writer. There have been observations that the interplay between Romola and Michael Gould may reflect Ella’s own interactions with the Almeida’s AD, for example.

But, for anyone who has already seen the show, this isn’t the most meta part – that belongs with the constant jabs at theatre’s endlessly white middle/upper class audience (particularly true of the Almeida’s) as well as the response of that very audience to the show unfolding in front of them.

“Did you see that play about the posh blokes?” Lara’s character asks in that shattering first scene, “You know the one about those fucking horrendous unforgivably entitled Cambridge boys… I went to see it and I was surrounded, in the audience, by the same guys that were on the stage and they were roaring, they were fucking loving it… How sure have you got to be of your power that you enjoy watching people take a pop at you? That having people express their rage about how angry you make them is your idea of entertainment?”

Now, I can’t lie, listening to the chattering classes laugh along with these punches, either oblivious that it was aimed at them or, for reasons I don’t quite understand, knowing that it was aimed at them but still finding this funny, got my back up.

In fact, at first, I could feel my own rage firing up in me. How desperately I wanted to stand up and shout, SHE’S TALKING ABOUT YOU, MOTHERFUCKERS! Just the conceit of the situation… I felt the audience’s laughs were condescending – the privileged mocking those struggling to be heard. And as the laughs continued, it became imperative to try and block them out just to be able to stay sitting in my chair.

But it’s been a few days since I saw the show and I’ve been thinking about this interaction of art and audience a bit more. I don’t know how many of you know the artist Carsten Holler, but he is probably best known in the UK for his installation of slides in the big Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern a few years ago. He’s a provocative artist for sure, and not many agree with his line that slides can be art but what Carsten is getting at is that, in his opinion, art is incomplete without an audience. It needs an audience – and the audience’s response to any piece is part of that artwork.

And I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of The Writer. I wonder how often discussion about audience response came up in the rehearsal room. Did they hope the Almeida would fall into a stunned silence, maybe even a few nervous laughs? Or were they expecting the utter lack of self-awareness or mocking spirit that greeted these jabs? If the latter, then I applaud the foresight of the creative team immensely. But it also demonstrates the extent of the privilege that seems impenetrable in British theatre,

For it is privilege and power structures that is at the heart of this play, but it is the evolution of this examination that causes this play to stumble. In a dual of man versus woman, the power structure is simple and clear. Where Ella takes her play next though is interesting and needed, but the results are mixed.

The men dissolve away leaving Romola’s writer in a new utopia where it’s just women. At first this seems idyllic – the companionship is instant and mutual understanding is heavenly. But where there are people there will always be power structures and, soon, these emerge with the white woman now transported from a lower rung to the very top of the tree. For in a world of women, it is the middle/upper class white woman who has all the privilege.

It’s an important and astute observation but its framing starts to get clunky. The depiction of lesbian relationships feels uncomfortable and without affection or nuance. The characters sadly revert to stereotype and we find ourselves in quite a heartless space. And the issue is then exacerbated by a confusing closing few sentences from Lara’s girlfriend.

She references the making of Picasso’s mighty Guernica in 1937 and, specifically, a notorious meeting between the artist’s lover Dora Maar and his previous mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, which came to blows whilst Picasso remained more interested in his painting than the angry and hurt women in his room. Picasso was a misogynistic prick anyway but the reason for its reference here seems to be an observation that whilst women fight amongst themselves, the power structure that enable men’s privilege remain rock solid.

Now, you may think that this is a wry observation, and it is, I suppose. But the issue is that when it comes to feminists not working together, it is white women who are letting the movement down. It is white women that are the issue in feminism, no one else. And so a white woman telling all women they need to keep their focus and up their game is more than a little jarring.

Basically, the whole last section of the play feels uncomfortable and awkward, as if it hasn’t really been thought through. I get that this is the overall feel of the show, and I do believe that The Writer is not a riddle that the audience is required to solve. I feel it is more a provocation, a tangled torrent of rage and disappointment, of fear and frustration, that is the result of being a (white) woman in society today. It is a scream into the void. But given all the stabs at the Almeida and the white elite in this show, a white woman giving out problematic mixed messages on intersectional feminism is the most ironic of white feminist Almeida-esque positions.

Add to that, an article in the program seems to infer that this is an attempt at queer theatre when, in reality, this section feels like a fully-fledged heteronormative take on queer lives and queer theatre and it just feels flawed.

Nevertheless, though it may lose its way, tripping up over itself in its later stages and getting clumsy with its own perspective and privilege, there is an ambition and complexity to The Writer – and an anger – that is worthy of its hype. It probably could have done with a bit more self-awareness, however, but nevertheless, for a few brief moments, I did finally see myself on a stage.

Almeida Theatre, London, to May 26, 2018.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Manuel Harlan.

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