Women Centre Stage: Heroines has been much-anticipated since Sphinx Theatre launched the event back in October. Aimed at getting more female voices onto our stages, Women Centre Stage is a varied and vibrant festival of “prompts and provocations”, garnering contributions from some of our most impressive emerging and established artists. This two-day festival began on Friday with a day of workshops and panels at the Actors Centre before reaching a raucous conclusion on Saturday at the National Theatre with a marathon of exciting new writing and live performance.
The performance day began at noon and we were greeted in the auditorium by Sue Parrish, Artistic Director of Sphinx Theatre, who reminded us throughout the day that women still only make up a third of all roles in UK theatre. Collectively riled by this, the audience murmured with expectation as the house lights faded to black. First in the day’s programme was Works in Progress: Parents and Politics, showcasing new pieces from Emma Jowett, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Kali Theatre and Karen Featherstone. A short and intriguing extract from Jowett’s Island kicked the set off, leaving us wondering what horrors had befallen the poor woman calling 999 to supposedly order pizza. This was followed by The Memory of Gold by Timberlake Wertenbaker, one of the day’s stand-out pieces. What I love about Wertenbaker’s writing is that she captures what it is to be human and coats it with just the right amount of poetry, making it both beautiful to the ear and true to the heart. Documenting the bittersweet reunion of three friends, The Memory of Gold is both a celebration and a requiem of the past. Extracts from Kali Theatre’s Twelve came next; a new collaboratively-written play exploring honour killings. We saw four monologues from four different women, the most striking of which was that of a mother condemning the soul of her murdered daughter. The final play of this set came from Karen Featherstone; definitely a writer to watch out for in 2015. Careless Sponsored Walks Cost Lives is a razor-sharp comedy about parents being strong-armed into joining elite parent-teacher groups at the school gates. Brilliantly performed by Shuna Show and Natasha Rickman, Careless Sponsored Walks Cost Lives had everybody laughing out loud.
Next up was Works in Progress: Memories and Mass Observation, featuring experimental new work by Caroline Moran, Camilla Harding, Heather Uprichard and Inspector Sands. Moran’s Prepper was another favourite of mine; a wickedly witty solo play about Rachel who has been hoarding chickpeas for the impending apocalypse. Abi Tedder as Rachel is the perfect storyteller and her delivery couldn’t be more in-sync with Moran’s slick humour. Camilla Harding’s cabaret show, Guy is a Guy, was short but effective, cleverly subverting our expectations of gender and drag. Following these two solo pieces was Coretta, Alice & Jackie by Heather Uprichard, a theatrical exploration of what happens when three fearsome historical heroines (Coretta Scott King, Alice Paul and Jackie Kennedy) breathe the same air as one another. The final work-in-progress from this set was The Lounge by award-winning theatre company, Inspector Sands. The Lounge is “a painstakingly slow farce” set in an old people’s home, combining the serious with the silly and the heart-breaking with the side-splitting.
The next collection of pieces was performed under Works in Progress: Conflict and Courtrooms. This included the poignant Mind the Gap by Hot Tubs and Trampolines, inspired by the origins of those three magic words we hear every day on the Underground. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of theatre so paradoxically simple and complex; it was very moving and I think the audience shared my sentiments. Moving for much darker reasons was Judith Jones and Beatrix Campbell’s Justice which follows two women, one angry and one ambivalent, as they prepare to give evidence in cases of historical child sex abuse. Timberlake Wertenbaker knocked it out of the park again with What is the Custom of Your Grief? Two girls connect on Facebook after losing brothers in Helmand and share their culture’s customs of grief, such as making someone a cup of tea when you don’t know what to say. A really stunning piece of writing performed emotively by Nadia Clifford and Anne Tierney. We rounded off with Oladipo Agboluaje’s Coralina, interrogating the soured relationship between two women who were once very close friends but now possess very different ideals.
The Sphinx Writers Group: Future Voices segment of the day was the most dynamic and the most provocative. Kicking off with Katie Johnstone from Luke Barnes, it was great to be reminded that men can, and must, engage with the issue of female under-representation in theatre if real progress is to be made (further supported by the significant number of men in attendance throughout the day). This was followed by the brilliant Welcome Home Lottery by Matilda Ibini, a sharp and soulful piece about homelessness told through three captivating women (played by Charlotte Josephine, Ronke Adekoluejo and Shuna Snow). Extracts from Sharmila Chauhan’s sensual new play, Roses, were read next; a tale of love reaching across the world from London to Kenya. I was particularly excited to see Charlotte Josephine’s Boys Will Be Boys after receiving her article about the frustrations she harbours with the types of roles women are expected to play: it did not disappoint. Boys Will Be Boys is a profoundly intelligent piece of work and the opening monologue delivered by Josephine herself is especially raw and powerful, with Josephine spitting out the words she has so carefully chosen and worked into a Kate Tempest-style rhythm. She is every bit as gripping as a wordsmith as she is as a performer and an absolute force to be reckoned with.
The Women at War plays began strongly with Catriona Kerridge’s Shoot! I Didn’t Mean That!, a darkly comic story shared by a conflicted interpreter whose job is to translate the cruel justifications of war criminals in court, a tourist incarcerated in Austria for making the Nazi salute and two schoolgirls planning their own conflict-zone tour of the world. Emily Bairstow’s performance deserves particular praise here as the interpreter no longer willing to associate herself with the empty apologies of others. Following this was Peter Cox’s play-with-music, The Question, set in post-WWI Europe. The contrast of saccharine cabaret songs with the greyness of life in the Weimar Republic didn’t quite work for me but there were moments of real beauty in Sarah Gabriel’s celestial vocals and the final, tragic scene. My Name is Rosa Luxemburg is billed as the ‘lost’ play of Pam Gems, who died in 2011 and translated the play from Marianne Auricoste’s French-language original in the 1970s. The play itself could use a little more imagination in terms of its action, which relies heavily on narration and report, but there is no denying that Rosa Luxemburg was an astounding woman with an astounding story to tell.
The closing part of the festival attracted the largest and rowdiest audience of the day, drawn in by the mystery of not knowing what they’d come to see. 24 Hour Plays: Heroines presented brand-new and spontaneous work by April de Angelis, Rona Munro, Rachel DeLahay, Barney Norris and Roy Williams, who had all written through the night to create a series of fifteen-minute plays inspired by women in the headlines. From Katie Hopkins to female bishops, the stimuli varied from playwright to playwright and took us on a wild journey of laughter and lament which provided the festival with a very fitting conclusion.
I found myself wanting to hug Sue Parrish at the end of the day; she must have been exhausted but her infectious enthusiasm never wavered. I sincerely hope we get to enjoy the benefits of a Women Centre Stage festival on an annual basis, as its inaugural year has certainly proved that there’s a greater appetite for female-centric theatre than ever been before. Furthermore, Women Centre Stage is not only an important celebration of creative talent but also of diversity, showcasing work by a range of women on both sides of the stage. It is an initiative which is hugely needed and an initiative that needs to continue. So where can I book my ticket for next year???
(C) Hannah Roe, 2015