With only 26% of new, main-stage productions in 2018 written by women, is the problem that many still consider women’s plays ‘personal’ rather than ‘political’, asks RSC deputy artistic director Erica Whyman
One of my privileges is to work both with Shakespeare’s plays and new plays on all scales, including for our beautiful thrust stages in Stratford, with their epic height and stirring sense of the Renaissance.
Every day I see the amazing variety of ways that a play can get at the state of a nation or ourselves, or both. So when I encounter the argument that playwrights who happen to be women tend to write ‘domestic’ plays, and that these plays, therefore, cannot be state-of-the-nation plays I find it both inaccurate and unhelpful.
The Taming of the Shrew is a ‘domestic’ play, but raises troubling questions about how power operates – in a relationship and by implication at the heart of a state. We might think Measure for Measure describes the particular moral state of a city, yet the story at its centre is a series of affairs of the heart, and while the Henry IV plays are unquestionably a portrait of a nation, they are really told through a small dysfunctional group of friends, a kind of family.
Shakespeare rarely separates the domestic from the affairs or metaphors of state. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale, Othello – all slip in a heartbeat from the familial to the global and back again and many of my favourite ‘great’ plays are enthralling knots of the intimate entwined with the political, the universal with the particular. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Doll’s House, Death of a Salesman, Rutherford and Son, Raisin in the Sun, A Taste of Honey – can we blithely write any of these plays off as ‘domestic’? We certainly don’t do that to the first three in that list, and Githa Sowerby, Lorraine Hansberry and Shelagh Delaney held up equally profound and revealing mirrors to the societies of which they wrote.
Do I think as an industry we have, for at least 400 years, consistently underestimated women’s writing for the stage? Yes. Does this reveal itself in our lazy caricatures of ‘women’s writing’? Yes. Do I think we do enough to restore the status of women writers who are no longer with us, or whose work hasn’t been on our stage in recent years? No. Do I think that the most urgent task, however, is to ensure that a wide and glorious variety of new writing by women is insistently commissioned and programmed for our major stages at least 50% of the time? I absolutely do.
The Writer’s Guild’s recent research by Victoria Sadler is a demoralising reminder that we are not there yet, with only 26% of main-stage productions of new plays in 2018 written by women. This speaks of a continued reluctance, anxiety or ignorance – or a cocktail of all three – in commissioning, developing and programming plays by women of a certain scale.
Which is infuriating, given that more than 60% of bookers in almost all our theatres are women. It is not, from where I am standing, that the women playwrights of our time are writing ‘domestic’ plays – it is that we are still, largely, giving them small stages on which their plays are produced. As a result cast sizes are smaller and single locations are encouraged, but scale and form will never get in the way of a ‘big’ idea.
There are lots of reasons both for optimism and to let go of narrow definitions of plays by women. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia was not only an urgent and expansive history play, but also an intimate portrait of a woman. Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night opened new doors on to the specifics of grief. Alice Birch’s writing (I’m looking forward to [Blank] at the Donmar) details the raw truths of our inner lives and in doing so reveals vast landscapes of injustice and societal dysfunction. Chris Bush’s Pericles set a new bar in community engagement, and she carries a bold torch for trans writers and the need to open our eyes to diversity and inclusion, and of course Lucy Prebble continues to be mistress of the scorching state-of-the-nation play.
For me the new play of last year was Ear for Eye by the unmatched Debbie Tucker Green, surgically dismantling the assumptions of white privilege and power in all spheres. None of these plays or writers is ‘domestic’ but they all deal in the domestic, in the minutiae of our interactions.
At the Royal Shakespeare Company I am excited about the next season in the Swan theatre. I am directing A Museum in Baghdad by Irish/Palestinian playwright Hannah Khalil, and Kim Sykes is directing The Whip by Juliet Gilkes Romero, a playwright of Caribbean descent.
Why do Khalil and Sykes’ identities matter? Because intersecting the stubborn gender bias in our culture and our industry are other, usually deeper, inequalities. There are far fewer women of colour whose work is regularly produced, and as Sadler reminds us in her research, of those who have had main-stage success, the majority are American, not British. So I am proud that, not before time, we are premiering both their plays in the same season, alongside King John.
Hannah’s play is an ambitious, inventive, devastating exploration of the impossibilities of keeping a museum open through 80 years of violence in Iraq. Is it domestic? It doesn’t claim to be – and yet as we rehearse we notice it is the study of a small, safe space, like a home or a sanctuary, in which people tell the truth about themselves.
Juliet’s play is even more explicitly about the state, set during the parliamentary squabbles preceding the abolition of slavery and the shocking bail-outs of the slave owners. But the play’s power lies in the juxtaposition of the domestic and the affairs of government – when the decisions made inside a household reveal the limits of the moral and political high ground.
Here’s to plays that don’t conform or behave. Here’s to women, men, trans and cis, binary or non-binary, angry or optimistic, being offered equal platforms for their work. Here’s to celebrating progress while not for a moment taking our feet off the pedals. And here’s to the women, who have known, perhaps forever, that the personal is always political.