If I see another article or blog about the dearth of women theatre writers and directors, I warn you I will scream. Scream and shout in a hissy fit, and stamp my feet. Why? Because people are looking at things the wrong way up. They’re looking but not seeing. Whilst wringing their hands about it all, they’re missing all the marvellous woman-work right in front of their noses.
The thing is, it is often stuff that many people – even people who should know better, and even though physical and devised and total theatre is supposedly pretty normal these days – don’t quite clock as theatre. Perhaps it is billed as ‘performance’ or ‘live art’. Perhaps it’s ‘physical comedy’ or ‘clown’ or ‘cabaret’. Whatever it calls itself, it is often work made by women artists, and it is often the best stage work that you will find out there.
Over the merry month of May I saw a whole raft of magnificent stuff on the stages of Brighton – and it is only now that I think about it, almost all of my favourite things in the Brighton Festival and Fringe were made by women.
And when women make theatre and performance work, we see women of all sorts placed up for our gaze our gaze – maidens, sex goddesses, crones and a whole lot more. We get myths and legends, feats of endurance, love stories with a twist, tussles between sex and death, camp political satire, the Hero’s Journey. The big stuff. Not a kitchen sink in sight.
Let’s start with the uncomfortable and thrilling combo of sex, death and religion. Triple Threat (Marlborough Theatre, Brighton Fringe). Enter stage left Lucy McCormick, dancing her silver sparkly sandals off, dressed as Mary Magdalene, or Mother Mary, or Jesus Christ himself, in a wicked exploration of the New Testament told through the eyes of its female characters. The props are the thing: Poundworld meets kindergarten toy box: wigs and wings and beards; boxers’ dressing gowns, baby dolls with really weird pink plastic shoes welded on, and tacky gold crowns. Ah yes, the three kings: Nescafe Gold Blend, frankfurters, and mer-engues… and oh what fun Lucy and her brace of boy helpers have, Singing and Swinging and Getting Merry like Christmas. Costumes fly on and off as they all multi-task magnificently as angels, devils, apostles, disciples, God the Father, Jesus, Mary this that or the other. They bump, they grind, they smooch, they make out in the aisles. There’s an infamous scene in which Doubting Thomas is brought to faith by inserting his finger into every orifice Lucy can offer up. ‘You’re gonna take it in the eye now…’ Adam Ant sang, many decades ago, when he was a decadent counter-culture hero. And that’s just the start of it.
When Triple Threat played at the Edinburgh Fringe 2016 reviewer Matt Trueman said ‘Don’t bring your mother’. I’d be more inclined to say, ’Don’t bring your children.’ We, the crones and grannies of today, were the pioneers of this sort of thing, I’ll have you know. We have stories to tell. You can just imagine a nursing home in the not-too-distant future, with me and Cosey Fanni Tutti and Annie Sprinkle sitting there in the lounge, talking about our orifice-penetrating performances and piercings and punk-rocking and what-not. Oh, those were the days!
I have, by the way, just read Cosey’s autobiography, Art Sex Music – so a little aside to note that here we have a woman, core member of Hull-based Coum Transmissions, co-founder of Throbbing Gristle, whose pioneering work and importance in the UK experimental performance scene has often been sidelined in favour of her male collaborators. Just saying. Women do stuff; people often chose to ignore it, sideline it, or play down the contributions.
Which brings us to Emma Rice. Female auteur/director. Leading light of Kneehigh Theatre. Current director of Shakespeare’s Globe – but she is to be ousted early from that role, because she dares to mess around with Shakespeare’s heritage. I mean – did anyone who employed her actually go to see anything she’d made before signing her up for the job? What were they expecting? Anyway – there’s plenty been said about this out there on the old interweb, so let’s leave it at that.
Instead, let’s look at the work. Specifically, Tristan and Yseult, a highlight of the Brighton Festival 2017. Oh what a joy this piece is. Almost 15 years old now, and still fresh as a daisy. Apparently Kneehigh’s dearly departed designer Bill Mitchell suggested the old Cornish myth to Emma, and she resisted strongly at first, claiming no interest in stories of kings and knights. But luckily for us, she eventually gave in – and created an awesome and beautiful piece of theatre that is a multi-faceted exploration of love, taking in the voyage from maidenhood to wife and lover, and the reclaiming of feminine power by a woman used as a prize bartered between men, and adding in some musings on the age-old duel between innocence and experience. There’s a live band (led by Stu Barker), fabulous physical comedy from a terrific ensemble of actor-dancers, and stunning performances from the three leads: company artistic director Mike Shepherd as Cornish King Mark; Kneehigh regular Dominic Marsh as his long-lost French son Tristan; and Kneehigh newbie/Matthew Bourne regular Hannah Vassello as Irish firebrand Yseult. Our heroine’s journey – augmented by sub-plot stories of two other women, her maid and her Unloved namesake, making it a love pentangle rather than a love triangle – shows us that you can steal a woman but you can’t own her; you can marry a man but you can’t make him love you; that love can come in many forms, often bending us in directions we weren’t anticipating; and that – yes – you can love two people at the same time. That the old maid, Brangian, is played by a man is a lovely Kneehigh touch. The show is currently playing at Shakespeare’s Globe in Emma Rice’s last summer season there (she has also programmed a winter selection at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, then that will be that – a vibrant female theatrical talent lost to this venue).
More myths, and another journey, this time not by a heroine, we are told, but by a female protagonist (comes with less baggage). Enter the Dragons – in which Abigail Dooley and Emma Edwards (aided and abetted by directors Will Kerley and Toby Park and designer Lucy Bradridge) bring us ‘an unruly combination of joy and dissent for anyone who is considering growing old’ (presented, on different dates, in both the Festival and the Fringe).
Both performers play The Protagonist, a woman of a certain age fearlessly weaving her way through the world of dawning cronedom with the aid of three gifts bestowed on her by her fairy godmothers, Iris Apfel, Dolly Parton and Germaine Greer – who manifest to our Protagonist as a three-headed puppet. These priceless magic gifts are the Spectacles of Insight, a tongue sharpener, and what you might take to be an old beige cardigan from M&S but is really a Cloak of Invisibility. Heading off on her journey by Uneasy Jet, The Protagonist is almost tripped up by a last-minute call from a teenage son needing something-or-other right now, but she ploughs on, through the Sea of Apology, and beyond the Forest of Forgetfulness (wondering why she went in there in the first place). Satirical sketches roll by one after the other relentlessly – no stone is unturned, no subject taboo: plastic surgery, the anti-ageing cosmetics industry, ‘finding yourself’ holidays, and the menopause all come under the scrutiny of A&E’s fine-tuned physical comedy. The fourth wall takes a battering as our brave duo constantly step in and out of the action, explaining their decisions to the audience or subverting each other’s performance with cheeky asides, in true cheeky chap-ess music hall style. Underneath it all, there’s a serious message. Be yourself. Your 8-year-old self and your 80-year-old self are always walking alongside you: love them both; let them guide you. Abigail Dooley and Emma Edwards are a brilliant comedy coupling: the writing is sharp as a witch’s nose, the performance as sparkly as Cinderella’s silver slippers. A fabulously entertaining evening.
Talk of sparkly slippers brings us to FK Alexander, who has once again donned hers and taken up residence in The Spire (Brighton Festival) for a soul-enriching durational performance called (I Could Go On Singing) Somewhere Over the Rainbow. This enchanting piece of performance art won a Total Theatre Award for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016. There’s always a worry, revisiting TT Award-wining shows outside of the Edinburgh bubble, that they might not shine as brightly on a second visit, but no fears here.
Accompanied by Glasgow noise band Okishima Island Tourist Association, FK’s ritual re-enactment of Judy Garland’s last live performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow presents a portrait of female strength and vulnerability. The costume, make-up and sparkly shoes are diva-ish, transforming her into a stage goddess; the way she holds each participating audience member’s hand, and gazes into their eyes, and sings for them, and smiles for them alone, is a manifestation of the tender mother, making the song a beautiful lullaby.
We need more rainbows, and sparkly slippers, and goddesses, and crones, and witches, and lovers, and lullaby-singing mothers. More female fairy tales. More feisty heroines. Bring on the dancing girls, and the singing divas, and the women clowns. Let’s sing and dance and laugh our way out of austerity and greed. Let’s put on our silver shoes and wave our panties in the air at the politicians and terrorists who’d like to stop us in our tracks. Girls just want to have fun, and sisters are doing it for themselves. There’s lots of fantastic woman-led performance work out there. Go see, go hear.