Last year, a writer introduced me to the term ‘cul-de-sac-ing’. She used it to describe her frustration at the fact that, having had a degree of early career success, the opportunities to have her work staged in larger spaces simply didn’t materialise. She was invited to attend a lot of meetings, there was a lot of talk, but, crucially, it didn’t lead to any commissions. She felt stuck, watching as other playwrights, many newer to the industry, were programmed on main-house stages. There were many nods of recognition from the other female writers in the room. This was something they had also experienced.
I was reminded of this conversation while reading the interview with Jamie Lloyd in the Observer this weekend. When he was asked the question of why the Jamie Lloyd Company had yet to produce any work by women, he said: “It’s tricky – what gives us the freedom to offer cheaper or free tickets is [high-profile] casting. It’s not necessarily that those actors have not been sent plays by women; it just so happens that they’ve responded to plays written by men.”
I know I’m not alone in having read that and thought: “It’s not really tricky, is it?” Lloyd staged a madly ambitious season of everything Pinter committed to paper. I reckon he could get to grips with this. It’s a weird non-answer that offloads responsibility on to the actors.
‘Lloyd’s weird non-answer sends a signal about his priorities’
Obviously the Jamie Lloyd Company is a commercial operation and Lloyd is programming what he feels will sell in the West End. I get that. Elsewhere in the interview he sounded genuine in his desire to make his shows accessible and affronted by the snobbery he felt was directed towards young audiences at his production of Doctor Faustus.
But this doesn’t get him off the hook. His response to the question sends a signal about his priorities. His company’s previous productions include Pinter’s The Hothouse starring John Simm, Jean Genet’s The Maids starring Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba, and Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class starring James McAvoy, the actor who will also star in Lloyd’s upcoming production of Cyrano. While you could argue there are few writers who come close to Pinter’s level of recognition among audiences, that’s less so with Barnes.
Lloyd’s stance is not quite in the Edward Hall league of sidestepping the issue. When Hall was taken to task for Hampstead Theatre’s shoddy track record of staging work by women, he responded with an open letter in which he said that in actual fact he had tried very hard to find work by women writers but that for various reasons outside his control these plays didn’t come to fruition. His letter seemed tacitly to put the blame on women writers for his not programming them. It also had the effect of making him sound oddly passive, as if as artistic director, having identified that something was an issue, he wasn’t in a position to do something about it.
As Victoria Sadler’s annual analysis of representation of work by women on London’s main stages regularly shows, we have a long way to go. Work by men still dominates our theatre’s main stages. Progress is being made, but at snail’s pace. When the stage adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend opens in the Olivier this week, it will be one of only a handful of plays written and directed by women in that space, the adaptation of Coram Boy in 2005 being the first. The first original play by a woman to be staged there was Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin, in 2008, a mere four decades after the building opened.
It’s not that the work isn’t out there but it’s often still perceived as small-scale and domestic (apparently a bad thing, as obviously nothing of dramatic magnitude ever happens in a family home), risky, less commercially viable, or not sufficiently thrilling enough to prove attractive to big-name actors. At an event to mark the launch of the new Women’s Prize for Playwriting, established to address this very issue, Tanika Gupta revealed that a prominent male director once told her “women did not have the intellectual rigour to write big plays”. This is depressing but frankly not all that surprising.
If representation is as important to Lloyd as he claims, then he could just, I don’t know, try directing some plays by women. (To be fair, he did go on to say that his company had a play by a woman coming up.) The thing is, he’s in a position to change things. And as playwright Chris Bush pointed out on Twitter: “Change up who you work with and your audience might well change too.” He might just find that programming outside a narrow band of writers gets actors’ creative juices flowing too.
Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/