Faye Merralls on The Globe New Writes 2013

The Globe’s Season of Plenty drew to an end last Sunday, presenting the perfect opportunity to reflect on the new writing the Bankside theatre had on offer for Shakespeare enthusiasts and new writing junkies (of which Descent’s Artistic Director is both).

This year’s Season of Plenty at the Globe was so-called because of the sheer volume of productions it had on offer, but the plethora of varied productions staged at last year’s Globe to Globe (some of which saw a return this year) would be a hard act to follow. My purpose, however, is not to comment on the whole ‘plenty’ but, as Artistic Director of a new writing theatre company currently studying an MA in Shakespeare Studies, I thought I would type about the Globe New Writes Season; a series of plays that I think deserved their own sub-heading; a specific angle beyond the (lazily titled?) ‘Season of Plenty’, as Gabriel, Blue Stockings and The Lightning Child all had a very strong central theme: female power and its presence in society or perhaps lack of.

First up, Gabriel, written by Samuel Adamson and inspired by the music of Henry Purcell, provided the opportunity to showcase one of the country’s most talented trumpeters: Alison Balsom. Interspersed amongst the music, which sounded out beautifully in the unique acoustics of the Globe, ‘playlets’ illuminated the ways in which Purcell’s music touched people’s lives at the end of the seventeenth century under the reign of King William and Queen Mary; from those at Court, to Players, to the Thames Watermen who would ferry people back and forth from the theatres. Gabriel’s Waterman was understandably one of the most popular of the play’s characters for audience and critics alike, who Adamson had created with a twenty-first century London cab driver in mind: full of stories about the seventeenth century celebs he’d had in his boat – including Purcell himself.

Another recurring character was Arabella Hunt, an influential singer in the Caroline court, who was rumored to have entered into a same-sex marriage. Her wife (Amy Poulter, forced to disguise herself as James Howard), killed herself shortly after Arabella’s decision to have the marriage annulled. Arabella’s seemingly unfeminine ways caused gossip about her true gender to ripple through Queen Mary’s court. Alongside these mini-narratives, the discourse around the trumpet from it’s description as “Fearsome; the King of intruments” to Dr. Radcliffe’s claim that “it’s the sweetest”; made the trumpet itself perform as a symbol of female potential throughout the play.

Gabriel did, unfortunately, make repetitive use of one of my current theatrical pet hates: a narrator. The use of an expositional narrator is the easiest way to tell a story on stage and to engage with an audience; it definitely saves a writer the hassle of creating believable, motivated and sympathetic characters. In plays that make hefty use of narration, the only character that the audience really has to get on board with is the narrator him/herself. I think the increase in the use of exposition in newly written plays over the past couple of years is owing to the growth in production and popularity of one-person shows – Bottleneck, Bitch Boxer, Grounded, Sea Wall to name but a few. To avoid diverting this article onto a tangent (maybe the stuff another blog post is made of?) Adamson’s new play was an engaging piece that really took to the unique space that it had been written for – the Globe was a suitable location for these seventeenth-century tales – a strong start to a season of new writing that would move gradually into the nineteenth and then, supposedly, the twenty-first centuries.

If you enjoyed hearing The Globe filled with music in Gabriel, you may have been fooled into going along to the Globe’s first ever musical, The Lightning Child. The play was advertised as a modern romp through Euripides’ powerful Greek drama, The Bacchae, accompanied by music that would attempt to turn the Globe into a quasi-club night, but Arthur Darvill’s score felt incongruous, giving the impression that it was fighting against its unique performance space rather than working with it.

The Lightning Child could have been a fresh representation of those lusty, hedonistic women and of the gendered relationships that control the course of Euripides’ tragedy. Che Walker decided not to focus on an update of the play itself, but to drop it in amongst very different modern narratives: of Neil Armstrong’s mission to the Moon; Billie Holiday’s success but subsequent health struggles; a heroin addict’s attempts to live clean; two twenty-something posh girls trying to live harmoniously together in a twenty-first century London flat  (and failing in a horribly dramatic way); and finally, in an attempt to drive its point about gender equality home, a quick sketch about the South African athlete, Caster Semenya. This is a plot-list that could form five potential full-length plays in itself.

I would have loved to have seen the focus remain on The Bacchae itself, which is already sufficient in powerful narrative. With a little imagination, it could have been displaced quite easily into modern day London; the Bacchae themselves could be suited and booted city women, drinking their way through their days; partying through the nights on a variety of illegal substances and really not doing that much work at all – enticing successful London financers into their destructive social routines. Or, even if such a drastic re-interpretation of the tale was not sought after by Walker and director Matthew Dunster, why not have both male and female actors forming the Bacchae? Instead of having one of Pentheus’ men (the most ‘feminine’ of his soldiers), converted by the women and thrust into a shiny gold thong, losing all the ‘rugged masculinity’ his army uniform, arguably, afforded to him in the first place (not to mention the poor actor’s dignity).

The production’s attempt to be liberal wasn’t helped by the fact that the strongest performance of the night came from Clifford Samuel, who played the most misogynistic character of the piece, Pentheus. Clifford was powerful and scarily convincing, but then with a gaggle of crazy, half-naked women thrusting about the stage, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and wish that he was living with us in the twenty-first century where women were not forced to behave in a variety of ways thought up by the male imagination. Oh, wait…

I can’t help but think, when I dislike a play as much as I disliked this one, that maybe I just didn’t ‘get it’; that it all just went straight over my head. Maybe Dunster, Walker and Darvill were being ironic all along and the uncomfortably sexist, racist and homophobic material in the play was all a device driving home their point about an equality that society now possesses a little more of? In reality though, Lightning Child was about as tongue-in-cheek as Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. And we all know Miley has a problem with keeping her tongue inside her cheek.

Thank God for Blue Stockings! And the play that Jessica Swale wrote about them, which provided the highlight of the Globe’s New Writes. A play teeming with a mix of fictional and non-fictional, sympathetic, well–drawn characters; Blue Stockings was the only one of the three not to make use of a narrator to pander to the audience, but instead recreated the story of Girton College’s fight for women’s right to graduate before our very eyes.

The play tugged on audience emotions as we got behind Elizabeth Welsh, the Mitress of Girton college, and her girls fight for equality in education; booing and hissing would accompany the offensive comments coming from the male Cambridge students and their Professors. The play wasn’t really as pantomime as all that though. It was a true account of the (almost) inescapable sexism of a patriarchy that had no holes in its armour until around the point in time that Jessica Swale chose to write about. It was the Globe space that lent beautifully to the immediacy of the audience reactions, but in another theatre this play would be just as powerful and likely to provoke stunned silences rather than whoops or boos. Dr Maudsley’s opinions, Swale shows, were a genuine belief that education could be of physical harm to a woman’s biology, and injuring our women with education would in turn have a very harmful impact on society (so, in his own way, Maudsley did care about women?!).

Another thought provoked by Swale’s play was the legacy that we owe to the men that started to dent that armour of patriarchy – like Mr Banks, who was one of the only professors to have the guts and the belief in making the journey to Girton College to run science seminars for the female students. Swale highlighted the point, that should really be a more obvious one, that feminism, as a movement towards equality, is not solely a woman’s fight; a fight that unfortunately would not have even got off the ground without a handful of men moving away from the norm: the intrinsic irony of feminism.

The Globe New Writes of 2013 all addressed, in a myriad of ways, the struggle between men and women to live harmoniously together as equals. This overriding theme was perhaps a happy accident for Dominic Dromgoole as, when programming new writing, it is often hard to garner the direction the productions will go in. New plays are all, however, a product of the time that they have been written in and so perhaps, the Globe’s theme developed out of the growing media interest in the New Feminist Movement; and on the idea that equality is still a long way off (there were articles on the lack of female roles in London theatre late last year and, more recently, the highly publicised backlash to Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance, of which one of my fave articles was from this ‘non-feminist’ blog). Indeed, one of several parts of Swales play that jerked at my tear ducts was the banner that descended at the play’s finale, which simply read:

The Girton girls continued to match their male peers grade for grade. Eventually the Senate succumbed to pressure and Cambridge awarded women the right to graduate. It was fifty years later, in 1948.

The knowledge that all Elizabeth Welsh and the Girton College girls had gone through during the two and a half hour traffic of the Globe stage would have been repeated for fifty years was a bit too much for me to take. Then, on leaving the theatre, the thought of the lack of equality that still exists after fifty more years was exhausting.

On the other hand, perhaps, no-one else even spotted the overriding theme of the three plays and it’s just a product of my interpretation; of my own preoccupations as part of the bloody lovely all-female company that is Descent.

One thing’s for sure though, the Globe will continue to harp on about women during this season’s programme of Globe education events, which I encourage all to check out here. I’m particularly excited, after the wonderful all-female touring production that the Globe produced this year, for the lecture on The Taming of the Shrew, with Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper. See you there?!

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