It’s a small moment, but an eloquent one. While playing the title role in Penelope Skinner’s Linda at the Royal Court, a play about the creeping invisibility of older women – the social and professional erasure that can often come with age – Noma Dumezweni takes off her wig. This gesture makes a statement. It’s a moment of exposure but also of ownership and control. Hell, even Dumezweni’s presence on this stage, at this time makes a statement. Despite the fact she’s still occasionally on book, having taken on the role days before press night after Kim Cattrall withdrew from the production, she’s formidable, delivering a performance of anger and precision, pain and poise.
Skinner’s play, it has to be said, is a very blunt instrument at times, subtle as a lump hammer. Linda works as a marketing executive in the beauty industry and has one daughter who can’t bear her own body, who self-harms and does all she can to shield herself from being looked at, or rather being gazed upon and judged. Her other daughter, a would-be actor, is struggling to find a meaty canonical female role to sink her teeth into. It’s all a bit too convenient and neat, but in making Linda’s predicament its focus, on insisting on her visibility, her capability and her fallibility, as a character, as a person, it’s a play that feels timely.
A character who requires only one word to define them isn’t much of a character
The question of representation of women on stage, and not just in terms of numbers, of boxes to be ticked, keeps recurring. And rightfully so. It’s not a question we can stop asking anytime soon. Sphinx Theatre Company recently launched an initiative designed to address this, aiming to combat the underrepresentation of women on stage while encouraging theatremakers to think about the roles they write for women – not the quantity of roles, but the kind of roles. All writers of plays and prose, need to be examining the choices they make in this regard.
Linda comes at the close of a London theatre season that also saw Denise Gough deliver an immense performance in Duncan Macmillan’s play about addiction, People, Places and Things, at the National Theatre. Her character was prickly, volatile, persuasive, and intelligent; a woman who damages herself and others. There’s been much written elsewhere about what makes a ‘strong’ female character, what that means as a term, and whether strength is even what we should be looking for; after all, a character who requires only one word to define them isn’t really much of a character. Gough has said she hates the term. In People, Places and Things, the woman she plays has many attributes; she has strength of course, as most addicts do, as well as a host of complex and contradictory weaknesses. It’s a gift of a role for a performer. But we’re still at the point where such roles are notable.
It feels like theatre has still got a long way to go in this regard, especially when you consider the work being made in other mediums. Netflix’s Jessica Jones, a super-powered private eye, is the current go-to reference point. Female superheroes have long been sidelined on the big screen, but things seem to be shifting on the small screen. While the show has probably been overpraised, the range and richness of the female secondary characters, including Carrie-Anne Moss’ ruthless attorney, is a real pleasure. You need to go back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, to an extent, Scully in The X-Files, to find characters in mainstream television who are allowed to be heroic while being funny, prickly, insufferable, sexually confident and magnificently self-sufficient all at the same time.
I’m also smitten by Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked and the Divine, a graphic novel series in which a group of young gods become pop stars, though their lives are curtailed as a result. It’s really intelligent about fan culture, mythology and the relationships we have with our idols (the artwork is beautiful too). The diversity in these books – in terms of gender, race and sexuality – is really stirring, yet it doesn’t feel effortful, just considered and reflective.
I realise it feels like I’m straying a little off topic here, but theatre doesn’t exist in a bubble: it should be engaging with these conversations.
Some writers are doing this already. Jon Brittain’s play, Rotterdam, recently staged at Theatre503 in London, was a brilliant mixture of sitcom and rom-com about a trans man and his female partner, which managed to say intricate things about gender identity without ever feeling like it was a play explicitly about these issues: it was first and foremost about the characters and their relationship. Isley Lynn’s Ideastap Award winning play, Tether, which explored the relationship between a female athlete and her coach, was similarly refreshing in its depiction of a friendship entirely fuelled by the characters’ mutual love of their chosen sport and their understanding of each other’s thirst for success. Veering slightly more into the mainstream, Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose was also heartening for the way in which it put female friendship at its heart and acknowledged that for some people it can be the dominant relationship in their lives.
I’m fed up of seeing women agonising about ‘having it all’ – an insidious phrase
But there’s still a lot of work where I wish more care had been taken in the writing. I’m fed up of seeing women agonising about ‘having it all’ – an insidious phrase if there ever was one. I’m fed up of yoga-mat caricatures and yummy mummies (Tamsin Oglesby’s Future Conditional, I am looking at you here). I am fed up of the trope of the wise cleaner. I want to see more of the contentedly childless, the dizzyingly ambitious, the women who are single and okay about the fact. Older women of all persuasions who are not defined by their age. I want to see more lesbians who don’t have sex by way of chandelier (Tipping the Velvet). More women whose lives are messy and frayed. I want all of these women to be visible on our stages, for them to steer their own stories, whether into the ground or into the stars. I want to stop writing and reading articles like this one, quite frankly.
Actors, I’m sure, want this too: to be stretched and tested, to get to flex. Gough, speaking to The Stage in November, said women “are human beings. The most interesting male characters – think of Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman – are flawed, broken, a bit weak. We’re completely fascinated by that.” And Jade Anouka, writing in a recent collection of essays entitled I Call Myself a Feminist, said about playing Hotspur in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse. “I would jump at the chance to play an interesting, affecting, challenging role, male or female. What actor wouldn’t?”
Dumezweni launches herself into the role of Linda; she glories in it, she owns it. Because a play like Linda, heavy-handed as it often is, still feels like a rarity – a portrait of a woman of years and of substance on one of our main stages is still unusual enough to be worth passing comment on. And in 2015 that is not acceptable.