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Playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz: Women have voted for a century, yet we await parity in theatre

A scene from Her Naked Skin at the National Theatre in 2008. Photo: Tristram Kenton A scene from Her Naked Skin at the National Theatre in 2008. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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“Deeds Not Words” was the suffragette motto. Women of all classes joined the movement for female suffrage because they felt invisible and voiceless without a vote. It’s 100 years since women who owned property were granted the vote here. It’s very resonant that the #MeToo movement is newly formed and wielding mighty power exactly a century later. #MeToo is also dealing with women’s voices; the refusal to be silenced.

People talk about a writer’s ‘voice’; it can feel like a war cry coming out at times, a primal rage. The stage can be a fantastic space to vent fury. My anger with the suffragettes was that they tended to be forgotten or misrepresented – caricatures of bulldog-like women chained to railings, an early instance of fake news.

Nicholas Hytner put on my play Her Naked Skin at the National Theatre in 2008. It was the first original play to be produced on the Olivier stage by a living female. No contemporary female playwright had been staged there since its opening in 1976 – a shocking case of silencing. Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes followed the next year.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’ Her Naked Skin to lead inaugural season of new Wiltshire arts organisation

Has the situation improved for women in the theatre in the last 10 years? Without doubt there has been a brilliant swathe of emerging women playwrights whose work is muscular and challenging. They write with full blood about sex, feminism, being a girl or a woman. There has also been a huge wave of interesting female directors.

But what are the statistics? I asked Sue Parrish, artistic director of Sphinx Theatre Company, which promotes and advocates the work of women in the arts.

She told me that parity for women in theatre still seems a long way off, especially as women playwrights still comprise just 28% of the total and women account for just 15% of artistic directors.

She added: “However, I think we are at a landmark tipping point, and the younger generation is stalwart and determined. I look forward to brilliant creative explosions transforming our male-dominated stages.”

The statistics are depressing. But I do feel a sea change. I have felt sexist barbs in the industry. At my first read-through at the National, someone stroked me like a cat and said: “Hello, Mrs Writer.” A producer said: “You’ll never be paid the same as the boys – that’s life.” A director said he wanted a female writer as “he did not want to be challenged”.

All spoke as though these ideas were reasonable. One hundred years on from partial suffrage, the patriarchy and misogyny are still here and there is much work to be done – see it in the heinous modern form of “upskirting” on the Tube. The fight is still on.

Salisbury Playhouse has revived Her Naked Skin to mark the centenary of suffrage. I look forward to hearing the female roar cry out over Salisbury Plain: “Deeds and words, this time… deeds and words.”

The regional premiere of Her Naked Skin is at Salisbury Playhouse from October 5-20

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