In 2015, we got to see Rufus Norris’ first year of programming as artistic director of the National Theatre. The centrepiece revival was Roger Michell’s production of Harley Granville-Barker’s 1927 play, Waste. It tells the story of a progressive politician, Henry Trebell, stitched up and exposed by his Tory coalition partners after his former mistress dies from a botched abortion.
And yet the central tragedy in Waste is Trebell’s, not the woman whose death inconveniently frustrates a grand liberal project. We mourn for his career; we barely mourn for her death. Watching this in November 2015, after all the fanfare about Norris’ own ‘radical’ proposals for the National Theatre, felt like a kick in the teeth. So often in grand, male-led narratives about political struggle, women’s lives, bodies and voices are still presented as inconveniences in the way of greater revolution.
So kudos to Norris, just over four years later, for programming a play that puts women’s lives, bodies and voices at the centre of a grand political play. Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin is overlong, a tad expositional, and burdened by plot twists in the second half: it’s also glorious and spirit-affirming.
Kirkwood gives us the story of an 18th-century pregnant probable-murderer, Sally Poppy, sentenced to hang unless she can convince a “jury of matrons”, 12 women, to assert that she is pregnant. Straight off, we have 13 meaty parts for female actors. It’s particularly good to see Ria Zmitrowicz, great in Clare Barron’s Dance Nation last year at London’s Almeida, shine again as Sally.
In part, The Welkin is a reminder of how the right (or lack of it) to control our reproductive systems affects every aspect of female life. It’s also a riposte to the world view of Waste, asserting that abstract philosophical debates about church and state, liberalism and law, often offer less liberation to 51% of the population than advice about contraception.
Throughout, we hear more about the sticky details of women’s bodies than I’ve ever heard on a major theatre stage (including on the different types of menstrual blood). And yet we never see a woman take her clothes off. When a smooth male doctor examines the prisoner, a deprived working-class girl, the jury of women screen her from our view with their own bodies.
I was reminded of Pauline Mayers’ 2017 show, What If I Told You. Mayers examined attitudes to the female body, race and class, while reconstructing a famous portrait of the abusive white gynaecologist Dr J Marion Sims examining an enslaved black woman in view of two other white men. (Her sisters peer in from behind a screen.) The question of who is allowed to gaze upon a woman’s body always tells us about that woman’s social worth.
Thank God The Welkin avoids the trap of offering Zmitrowicz up for our gaze. We don’t need it. More plays about what politics means for women, please, Rufus. And more about the ways women talk about our bodies; not how men observe them.
Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic. She currently writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Guardian, as well as a range of US publications. She sits on the board of Index on Censorship and this year’s judging panel for the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/kate-maltby