By Barbara Lewis, Womens Feature Service
Theatre in Britain is one of the positive stories to emerge from recession – and women playwrights, in particular, have drawn audiences that are especially in need in testing times of the sense of shared humanity inspired by the best drama.
Some commentators have gone so far as to hail a new generation of women writers, breaking through a glass ceiling, while others say women have been writing plays for centuries, albeit in virtual isolation.
Probably the most talked-about of today’s British women playwrights is Lucy Prebble, whose ‘Enron’ was staged at London’s Noel Coward Theatre recently. It takes as its subject the US energy company, Enron, which has become synonymous with corporate fraud. The play’s recent run in London follows sell-out performances last year that were lauded by critics and cognoscenti. Its exposure of the flawed nature of big, powerful corporations has proved particularly resonant, as the world questions the capitalist model in the wake of the credit crunch.
“I was really struck by its ambition,” Dominic Cooke, artistic director of London’s Royal Court theatre, which devotes itself to promoting talented new writers, has said of Prebble’s ‘Enron’. “It’s a Shakespearean play with a massive reach, very theatrical. It’s a really fascinating study of greed and power – corporate power and how it works, corporate excess.”
The subject matter is very masculine, but Prebble brings to it the kind of feminine intuition and common sense many argue could have staved off the excesses that triggered global recession. A profile in Britain’s ‘Guardian’ newspaper, which placed Prebble “in the vanguard of young women playwrights”, praised a scene in which a child repeatedly asking “why” lays bare the absurdity of a corporate man, whose sense of self-worth is based on checking a share price.
It said Prebble did not particularly feel part of a movement of new women writers, but she welcomed the perspective they brought to a still-very male-dominated world. Research by the London-based Sphinx Theatre Company, which campaigns on behalf of women in theatre, says four out of five plays staged professionally in Britain are by men.
Without women, Prebble was quoted as saying: “you are getting such a one-eyed view of the world in your art, in films in particular. Only half of the world is being asked to do the looking, you know. There are so many things missing from it as a result.”
The Royal Court’s anxiety to ensure theatre represents the views of all sections of the population has informed programmes designed to generate a critical mass of black, Asian and minority ethnic playwrights. One of the beneficiaries of such schemes is Alia Bano, a British-Asian teacher who works at a North London school. Her play ‘Shades’ – the story of a young, single Muslim woman living in London – earned her the ‘Evening Standard’ newspaper’s 2009 award for the most promising playwright.
Other rising British female talents, all under 30, discovered by the Royal Court include Bola Agbaje, a British playwright of Nigerian origin, and Polly Stenham, who was only 19 when her first play, ‘That Face’, opened to critical acclaim in 2007. It has since toured internationally. Stenham comes from a privileged British background, very different from Bano’s working class roots.
Bano attributes her break into a male-dominated realm to sheer hard work – though that is not to deny Stenham’s highly developed work ethic or that an affluent background can generate its own problems. “When a world is dominated by something it feels harder to break through if you’re not the norm,” the BBC quoted Bano as saying. “As a working class Asian girl growing up in Britain I always wanted to write. But did I ever think I’d have a play on? No. “I thought it was slightly beyond me; this beautiful world I didn’t have access to. Actually I found that was totally untrue. If you give it a go and work as hard as the next person, you can get in.”
While more women are realising that to be the case, some prefer to stress that a handful of women have for centuries managed to find a voice. One of the first English professional female writers was Aphra Behn, who lived from 1640-1689. Amongst other things, she wrote numerous plays, which have enjoyed a revival in popularity and her reported bisexuality and unconventional life-style have added to her status as a liberated woman.
Author Virginia Woolf would have argued today’s women owed a great deal to Behn. Woolf famously said, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
Today’s generation of women playwrights should take note of these words.