At London’s Royal Court two Saturdays ago, Clean Break, the remarkable company that works with women who have experience of the criminal justice system, celebrated its 40th anniversary. It held an afternoon of conversation featuring the playwrights it has worked with over four decades.
One of the remarkable things about its four-decade history is not just its social impact, but its impact on the careers of dozens of female playwrights. Without Clean Break, many may not have been able to sustain careers or find the stages on which their plays have been seen so widely.
Even more crucially, as Rebecca Prichard and others made clear during the afternoon, Clean Break has encouraged them to write the plays they wanted to write and supported them to write in whatever form they chose.
I recall seeing an early Lucy Kirkwood play written for Clean Break a decade ago called It Felt Empty When the Heart Went at First But It Is Alright Now, which was as much installation as it was monologue. It took you straight inside the head of a young Croatian woman sold into prostitution.
Next month a Clean Break co-production, Alice Birch’s uncompromisingly experimental [Blank], opens at the Donmar Warehouse, and most recently we have seen Inside Bitch at the Royal Court, which examines the machinery of theatre itself and handed over power to those whom theatre seldom allows to take centre stage through co-collaboration.
The latter act influenced both form and the content. Was it messy? Hell, yes. But that very messiness made a statement about the complexities of women’s lives and theatre’s tendency to put stories into nice, neat packages topped with a theatrical bow that make them palatable to middle-class audiences.
One of the things the Clean Break symposium also raised was the appropriation of vulnerable stories for a playwright’s gain, with Winsome Pinnock pointing to the stark difference between inspiration and appropriation.
But let’s return to form. Caryl Churchill has always talked about how form and content are the same thing and demonstrates it in every one of her plays. Yet we often forget this, and sometimes us critics are the biggest amnesiacs of all. Particularly when it comes to work by female playwrights or indeed anyone who doesn’t write a play in exactly the same form that white male playwrights have been writing for years.
But different stories demand different ways of being told. There is no point proclaiming that we want more diverse voices in theatre unless we also accept that diverse stories will also come in diverse forms. They simply won’t conform to received – and now outdated – notions of what a good play is and how it should be structured. Critics need to be open to that because too often it doesn’t really feel as if the critical culture has moved on all that far from Sarah Kane’s Blasted.
This has very much felt the case over the last 10 days or so when we have seen a string of plays by women playwrights that have playfully – sometimes brutally and often lyrically – told stories in different ways and in some cases have been greeted by incomprehension. Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison at London’s Old Vic keeps throwing hand grenades into its own storytelling, which feels absolutely right and proper for a play that is asking questions about how stories are transmitted, by who and for what purpose.
Prebble’s play has been widely praised and deserves every ounce of that praise. But I wonder whether to some extent it is protected by the prestige of the Old Vic and the production values that the budget confers in a way that doesn’t happen with so much work written by women and playwrights of colour that is also exploring how form and content are one and the same. As I have written before, work by women often gets sidelined to smaller stages for shorter runs.
The last week has also seen two plays by women – Maya Arad Yasur’s fascinatingly knotty Amsterdam, produced by Actors Touring Company at the Orange Tree, and Jackie Kay’s Chiaroscuro at the Bush – which have found praise but also had detractors, which points out the gap between what artists are doing and how it is often received in the mainstream media. Particularly if those artists are women and not white Europeans or Americans.
Chiaroscuro is actually more than 30 years old, which makes me want to cheer for how ahead of its time it was, and weep for the fact that three decades on some are still dismissing it by questioning whether or not it is theatre.
It’s a redundant question, and one that a new generation of writers, directors and theatremakers are proving unnecessary and outmoded through the work they are making, presenting, excavating and bringing to our attention.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner