*Originally written for Exeunt*
Since Edinburgh last year, life has been pretty hectic for Charlotte Josephine, star and writer of her one-woman show Bitch Boxer. After August, she was snapped up for Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse (read more about this production in William Drew’s cast interview for Exeunt) in which she performed whilst continuing to work on The Altitude Brothers with Snuff Box Theatre, a company she co-runs. All whilst preparing for a London run and national tour of Bitch Boxer.
“It feels like it’s been a long wait for things to kick off but they’re finally starting to,” she tells me as a chat to her on the phone straight out of a rehearsal for Bitch Boxer, “We’re all incredibly humbled by it but it feels like the only to acknowledge it is to work hard again”. And working hard she is; rehearsals for the show are so strenuous that it takes her a while to catch her breath as we start the interview. For the past few weeks, Josephine has spent her mornings training, her afternoons rehearsing and her evenings performing, switching from Chloe to Lucius around dinner time.
How was the transition from Bitch Boxer to Julius Caesar? “It’s been difficult jumping from one show to the next, but I’ve really enjoyed Julius Caesar, and it’s been amazing working with these really strong women.” Josephine pauses and chuckles, “It’s odd. I’ve just done this one-woman show about being a strong woman and then all of a sudden I’m on stage with fourteen other strong women in the first all-female Shakespeare in London. Someone is clearly trying to tell me what I’m supposed to be learning this year.”
This focus on a strong woman is, to my mind, one of the reasons Bitch Boxer has been so successful. The piece tells the story of how a young boxer, Chloe, copes with the death of her father, and the strong female voice comes through loud and clear. Josephine tells me that Bitch Boxer was always intended to be the theatricalisation of her own frustrations about society’s dictation of gender tropes, but the feminist undertones crept in afterwards: “I didn’t sit down and say ‘I’m going to write a feminist piece’, but people are funny about the word ‘feminist’ and I’m not ashamed to say I agree with a lot of feminist views.” Indeed, many girls have approached her asking to use excerpts from the monologue for audition pieces: “They like the strong voice – the strong female voice – and they can’t find other monologues which are similar to that. So that’s nice, I wasn’t expecting it.”
When I saw the piece at the Edinburgh Fringe last August, what struck me particularly was the way in which Bitch Boxer seemed to be suggesting a new way of making theatre, lying in the space between poetry and playwriting and utilising many techniques to convey a story. When I ask Josephine if she was intending to make some kind of theatrical statement, she chuckles: “We just focus on wanting to tell good stories on stage, because as theatrical as things can be and as classy, as dazzling and exciting and clever, if there’s not a good story there then you don’t care and you just leave feeling cold. We just wanted to tell a good story in a way that we thought was fun and interesting.” She cites spoken word artists such as Kate Tempest, Sabrina Mahfouz and Simon Mole as other writers she admires, and says she listened to a lot of hip-hop and jazz music whilst making the piece, giving it its grassroots and improvisational feel.
But what about boxing, the subject that lies at the heart of the piece? Amazingly, she only started training after writing the first draft, meaning she’s only been boxing for a year; if you’ve seen the piece, you’ll understand why this is a pretty incredible feat. The sport is now just as much a part of her life as theatre, and she cites mantras from training which she’s found useful in her everyday life (“Train hard, fight easy”, “Go hard or go home”), and revels in the theatricality it: “You’re in a ring, which is pretty much like being on a stage, and you’re in front of loads of people, and you’re performing”. I like to think of Bitch Boxer as the culmination of an unofficial ‘boxing trilogy’ which also includes Sucker Punch and Beautiful Burnout (though Josephine took care not to expose herself to either once she chose her subject matter).
One of the most striking moments in the piece comes when we see Chloe lip-synching to Eminem, demonstrating her human interior and capacity for play. Interestingly, however, this wasn’t added until after audiences began viewing the piece: “That was something we found because people were coming with an expectation of the show, thinking it’d be really cool and slick, and a bit cold in that sense… But [Chloe’s] much geekier than that, she’s much more vulnerable than that, and she’s just a normal person who happens to box. We wanted to really play with people’s expectations. We imagined that people would think that we’d take ourselves really seriously, so we wanted to find those moments of play and clowning, where you see her messing about and being silly. Because people are silly. Everyone’s had that moment of lip-synching in front of the mirror, and we just wanted to find those moments.” And herein lies the key to Bitch Boxer’s success, highlighting its smart blend of serious and silly, interior and exterior. Because, though we may not all box, we all know exactly what it’s like to get caught lip-synching in front of the mirror.