Vicky Featherstone: ‘Critics are harder on women’

Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Mark Hamilton Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre in London. Photo: Mark Hamilton
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Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of London’s Royal Court, has claimed critics and audiences judge female playwrights more harshly than their male counterparts.

She also suggested that theatregoers feel more at ease with plays that focus on men.

Featherstone, who directed Maxine Peake in How to Hold Your Breath earlier this year, revealed that Peake felt critics and the press were prejudiced against her performance because she was a woman playing a female lead.

Speaking at a career retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Featherstone said: “Maxine, when she played Hamlet, had been completely lauded in her performance. When she played the character in How to Hold Your Breath – which was an ‘everyman’ story that happened to be a woman – she felt the way she was being written about in the press was very discriminatory. And if that character had been a man, it would have been different.”

She added: “It’s something Nick Hytner said to me years ago: ‘We’re really used to living in a society where the main narrative – politicians, kings, judges – the main narratives on-stage and in our lives are male-led. And actually, we don’t know whether we’re very good yet at watching a female narrative, especially with a flawed character.’”

Featherstone proceeded to claim audiences often only feel comfortable with uncomplicated female roles, using the example of the main role in April de Angelis’ play Jumpy – played in 2011 by Tamsin Greig.

“What we’re able to do is watch a female character like the character in Jumpy, which is a very clear character of a woman of a certain age… it’s something we can get hold of. She’s not particularly flawed, she’s quite funny, and the play works like that,” she said, adding: “We haven’t seen a female King Lear on stage, we haven’t seen a female Willy Loman, we haven’t seen a female Hamlet. People haven’t written those plays yet. And when they do write them, or when they try to write them like Zinnie Harris [author of How to Hold Your Breath] did, people don’t receive the play very positively.”

Featherstone said the female playwrights she works with “feel very nervous and angry, collectively and individually, about the the fact their plays are given a different sense of scrutiny to the men’s”.

“We all – myself included – still feel more comfortable with a male narrative, and I don’t know why that is,” she added.

Although she claimed it was a “challenging” climate for female playwrights, Featherstone underlined that five out of six plays in the Royal Court’s upcoming autumn season are written by women.