“Together, we remake things.” This is said towards the end of Ella Hickson’s Swive [Elizabeth] at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Hickson’s witty history play, exploring the life and reign of Elizabeth I while also commenting on the pressures placed on unmarried women throughout history, ends with the queens – for they are plural – ridding themselves of their constrictive dresses.
Swive [Elizabeth] contained thematic echoes of Hickson’s 2018 play The Writer. It explored the pressures placed on women artists, by the industry, society, and sometimes their own partners, to conform. This was at the Almeida, a venue whose track record on programming work by women had until then not exactly been exemplary.
Form was vital to this conversation. In an earlier interview, Hickson told the Guardian: “No matter how subversive the conversation, if the form is naturalistic, the argument dialectical and the protagonists – as the genre tends to have them – white, male and middle-aged, then the play is part of the establishment.”
The impulse to rip off the ruff, to tear up the rule book, to reject a system shaped by men, has reverberated through theatre over the last couple of years, as the Me Too movement gained momentum (before the depressingly inevitable Teflon effect of wealth and celebrity kicked in). “Burn the whole fucking house down,” roared Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia, a play that made the 16th-century poet Emilia Bassano a conduit for every woman whose complexity, as a human and an artist, had been reduced to a footnote in someone else’s – a man’s – narrative.
In her play The Watsons – transferring to the West End next year – Laura Wade took characters originally created by Jane Austen but left unfinished and let them forge their own path. Breach’s enjoyably raucous Joan of Leeds, currently at the New Diorama, grants its nun protagonist possession of the microphone. She will not be silenced by history. Even Piers Torday’s retelling of A Christmas Carol, at Wilton’s Music Hall, has its protagonist – Fan Scrooge, sister of the deceased Ebenezer, widow of Marley – reject Dickens’ ending for one in which she chooses to uplift other women.
As cathartic as many of these moments were, if they don’t lead to anything new, if they remain endings and not beginnings, they risk becoming a trope.
This was a year, after all, in which stages heaved with Ibsen and Arthur Miller. Some of these productions were brilliant. The way Tanika Gupta’s A Doll’s House at the Lyric Hammersmith, set in the time of the Raj, used Ibsen’s familiar frame to explore colonialism was dexterous and resonant. Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s recasting of the Lomans as a black family in Death of a Salesman was genuinely revelatory. There are clear reasons why these plays continue to speak to people and it’s understandable why writers and directors would want to revisit them.
There are also obviously pragmatic reasons for staging these plays – the familiar is more bankable after all – and in translating and directing the works of men, women get access to bigger spaces and stages.
And yet, whichever way you spin it, that’s still an awful lot of Ibsen and Miller. In returning to these texts, I worry we allow less space for new stories to be forged, for formal boldness and experimentation.
There are exceptions, obviously. Caryl Churchill continues to innovate, and, in its exploration of the duality of life lived online and in the real world, Jasmine Lee-Jones’ Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner broke new ground. Eve Leigh’s Midnight Movie experimented with the idea of a “digital body” (all hail London’s Royal Court). In All of Me, Caroline Horton broke her own show and rebuilt it in order to better evoke mental distress and the crushingly cyclical nature of depression. In the startling Land Without Dreams at the Gate Theatre, Temi Wilkey un-humaned herself in goo.
Some of this work was difficult. Not all these shows were for everyone, but they were at least stretching and questing, and that sometimes feels all too rare in this country.
These things matter, because, now more than ever, with the right on the rise, we need new stories. In her column this week, Lyn Gardner spoke of theatre’s responsibility to be useful, to be true community resources. I agree with this wholeheartedly. But I also believe that theatre has a responsibility to challenge and dismantle dominant narratives. (Though how you do that within the parameters of the subsidised sector is obviously complicated.) Theatre has the capacity to be a vital tool of opposition, but only if it concerns itself with where we are, as well as where we’ve been. Because if we don’t change the manner in which we tell our stories, and the stories that we tell, how can we hope to change the world?