Mother’s Day: a day for celebrating the strong, courageous women in our lives and all over the world. This year, the day took on some additional gravitas for those sitting in the Greenwich Theatre that evening as together, we bore witness to four intrepid new plays by fearless female playwrights and we were challenged, moved, captivated and galvanised.
RED Women’s Theatre Awards is a new playwriting prize for political theatre by women. The Award will be given to one of the shortlisted scripts from the regional finals and this evening marked the finals for Greater London. RED is the brainchild of Effie Samara, whose doctoral research at the University of Glasgow centres on the dramaturgies of resistance in female-authored drama. There is no time of year more fitting for the birth of her project than right now: on Mothering Sunday, two days before International Women’s Day, at the beginning of Women’s History Month. We were lucky to hear from the woman herself as she introduced the suite of plays, thanking James Haddrell (Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre) most notably for taking the plunge in helping her stage and promote this game-changing new work.
Speaking on behalf of women everywhere, Effie lamented that for all our lives, “we’ve been told we can’t think big” and invited the audience to “consider the possibilities of freedom” that lie in allowing women the same opportunities as men – both industry and society-wide. Emphasised by the evening’s programme of provocative women-wrought plays on the theme of exile and resistance, there was no escaping the transformative power of the female voice.
Kicking the evening off was Cassiah Joski-Jethi’s Under My Thumb, exploring the relationships between six women as they endure captivity for the crime of speaking out against gender-based injustice. Five of the women are long-standing inmates, but a new arrival upsets the balance and hierarchy of the group who have become accustomed to the patterns of their imprisonment. By placing six female characters in a confined space together, Cassiah dares to manipulate known stereotypes and challenge our preconceptions of how this dynamic might play out. Her dialogue is immediate, raw and loaded; confronting the oppressive practices of cat-calling, victim-blaming and slut-shaming. The play is an interesting metaphor, painting the institution as a microcosm of patriarchal dominance. I would be really keen to see Under My Thumb fully performed, to see how the addition of video projection complements the live action. A thought-provoking piece with a cast of complex characters whose stories I wanted to hear more of.
This was followed by Sian Rowland’s Spurn the Dust, set against the backdrop of a protest against public sector cuts. Bringing us the personal stories behind the political gumf we’re so often fed and expected to swallow down, Sian’s play is whip-smart and hilariously funny. Spurn the Dust follows Denise and Ace, both activists in their own way: Denise has chained herself to a statue of David Lloyd George and Ace is on the run after throwing a Coke can at a police officer. United in protest, a wonderful relationship forms between the two strangers as they laugh, sing, share and attempt to go viral together. The play is honest and authentic with two beautifully-crafted central characters, who epitomise the pressures exerted on normal people every day by a cold-hearted parliament. What Sian does brilliantly in this two-hander is manage moments of stillness and clarity with the juxtaposition of energetic silliness – from Milkshake to Fifty Shades of Grey. Thoroughly enjoyable!
Dissonance by Isabella Javor is a dystopian drama set in 2020 England after the collapse of civilisation. Five survivors struggle to salvage an existence whilst negotiating their relationships with one another in a new world where rules no longer apply. Like in Under My Thumb, a new arrival tips the scales and calls the survivors’ new reality into question. Dissonance shows both the beauty and ugliness of humanity; championing its resilience whilst also condemning its fear of otherness. Isabella combines this sense of high drama with poetic and lyrical language, using music and song to create an additional layer to the play. You can really feel the threat that hangs in the air from the beginning, and Isabella’s script has such frightening foresight that it really is an unsettling watch. It is a brilliant reminder of why we all gathered at the Greenwich Theatre that night: women really can think big.
The final script of the evening was Kate Webster’s Gone, a play questioning the nature of free speech and how it is often only considered ‘free’ when it passes the approval or meets the agendas of others. Inspired by the story of Antigone, Gone deals with the fallout of two sisters burying their brother who died fighting in Afghanistan. It is a shocking interrogation of how war heroes are fetishized by the media and politicians; this idea that you’re not truly British until you die for your country. Kate, remaining true to the play’s origins in Greek tragedy, employs a chorus of heckling, social-media fanatics who are obsessed with fame and glory. It’s a hugely effective device and, judging by the disgruntled mumbles arising from the audience, it had the desired outcome; that we were left inflamed by it. Gone is an intelligent example of how just speaking out is an overtly political act in itself.
RED Women’s Theatre Awards is the initiative we have been waiting for: a celebration of revolutionary and rebellious female voices that would otherwise be silenced. If this is the quality of the work coming out of its inaugural year, then the future really does hold exciting things for RED and for female playwrights across the UK. It was a truly inspiring and empowering evening: I feel privileged to have been there.
© Hannah Roe, 2016
Playwrights: Cassiah Joski-Jethi, Sian Rowland, Isabella Javor and Kate Webster
Directors: Amie Taylor, Kate Saffin, James Haddrell and Alice Kornitzer
Actors: Charlotte Merriam, Emma Bentley, Charlotte Green, Helen Deveraux, Alice De-Warrenne, Serin Ibrahim, Fiona Whitelaw, Alex Appleby, Simon Christian, Myles Rogerson, Jessica Aquilina, Sian Eleanor Green, Yasmine Dove, Rebecca Carrie, Danny Steele, Alin Balascan, Natalie Harper and Rea Mole