Ella Hickson’s new play is about writing, yes, but also about theatre, art and the creative process. It’s about the difficulties faced by women trying to create something true to themselves as an artist, without giving in to the expectations of men, or the pressure to produce something safe and sellable. Patriarchy and capitalism basically.
The Writer is an eloquent, intellectually agile, vividly written and frequently furious play. It feels like the result of years of pent-up frustration about the way that stories get told on our stages, who tells them and how, and the constant compromises that women are obliged to make in this industry, and in the wider world.
On occasion, it seems to be addressed directly to the Almeida, where work that looks and sounds a certain way dominates. There’s even a line about gratuitous rape scenes in theatre (hello Rupert Goold’s Richard III) that made me want to cheer.
Yes, it’s an angry play, angry that, for the most part, men are valued for their talent, women – still – for how fuckable they are, but it’s also a formerly intricate piece, a play of layers that one by one are peeled away, a meta-theatrical exercise in self-interrogation that also makes for a compelling theatrical experience.
In the opening scene, a young woman (Lara Rossi) encounters an older man (Samuel West) after a play. She is frustrated with the work she’s just seen for what she sees as its conformism and laziness. She wants to make work that changes the world.
It turns out these two have met before. She was a talented and ambitious young drama student. He had the power to propel her career to the next level. You know what happened next. We’ve heard so many variants on this story lately.
Hickson’s play constantly, and thrillingly, resets itself. In the first of many shifts, it turns out that these two were just acting out a scene, the work of a new writer (Romola Garai). A director (Michael Gould) praises its promise while insisting that what it needs is greater structural rigour. He can help her with that, he says.
More scene-shifting follows. The writer wrestles with success while negotiating the emotional and sexual needs of her partner (West again, brilliantly passive-aggressive) and the pressure all women are subjected to, eventually – to produce, not art, but a child; to do their biological duty.
Hickson has written before about the importance of form. She 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.” If we don’t change the manner in which we tell our stories, how can we hope to change the world?
She wants to move beyond the idea of two people on stage engaging naturalistically and includes a scene that dispenses with familiar modes of storytelling. It’s wilder and messier – and, one suspects, intentionally a little disorientating. In this way it’s reminiscent of Keri Hulme’s novel The Bone People in which the protagonist tears down a tower to build a spiral in its stead. Fittingly, as Garai tells this story, in which she plunges into the jungle and finds spiritual completeness, spirals populate the Almeida’s back wall.
Blanche McIntyre directs all this with customary dexterity and alertness to the work. It’s a perfect union of writer and director. The cast grasps it too. Garai is spectacular. She morphs from a tongue-tied aspiring new writer – cowed by those around her and almost constantly apologising, for occupying this platform at all, for having the temerity to have something to say and a wish to say it in the way she wants – to an altogether more confident figure who nonetheless lets men shut her down or sway her choices. There are moments when she rages, when she burns with fury, at her self and the world.
West displays immaculate timing throughout, particularly as Garai’s partner, whose efforts at being supportive are tempered by his need for her to be grateful for his efforts, to play the role she’s supposed to in their relationship. Rossi and Gould also revel in the play’s layers. Anna Fleischle’s flexible set assists the play’s continual shifts in tone. The audience gets to watch it being erected by the Almeida’s backstage team; we are privy to its tricks.
Again and again, the play returns to the idea of art. It asks: is writing a career or a calling? Can one ever create something pure once money has entered the picture? Yes, some of this feels like a therapy session, a writer engaged in a wrestling match with herself. Yes, there’s a kind of double-irony about this appearing on the Almeida’s stage. It doesn’t matter though. It doesn’t detract from the play’s clout.
Hickson has always written with insight about power and sex, ever since Eight, the series of monologues with which she made her name. The Writer contains a number of lengthy sex scenes between Garai and partners, both male and female. It makes one realise how rare it is to see female desire in all its complexity, portrayed on stage.
There is a lot of onstage eating, too. The food is real. Appetite is all. The final scene makes it plain that none of this is enough. Even though there isn’t a single man on stage, the patriarchy remains intact – there’s still a great big dick in the room, literally and figuratively.
It’s strange how so often we use the language of violence to describe things that affect us. We say: ‘It packs a punch’, ‘It hits hard’. The Writer makes it clear that it’s time to use new tools, to think differently, talk differently, live differently.