On Midsummer Mischief, Part Two – Feminism(s)

*Published on Exeunt*

“I’ve fucking cracked it…”

At the beginning of one scene in Alice Birch’s Revolt. She said. Revolt again, an actor begins to try to articulate her newfound theory on the world and its problems. She starts to speak, but is immediately interrupted by someone else. Throughout the next ten minutes, as a dizzy spectacle of sketches happens around her, she struggles to put her ideas into words. Then, just as everything seems to be dropping off a cliff of insanity, she speaks one of the most startling, poetic and honest feminist critiques I’ve heard.

This theme of language and its pitfalls runs throughout Birch’s piece (and, to varying degrees, throughout the other three plays in the Midsummer Mischief season), as the play attempts to come to terms with the way our structures of speech and writing reinforce and perpetuate sexism. In one scene, for example, a subversion of the ‘norm’ sees a woman using dominant sexual language when talking to her boyfriend, whilst in another the entire institution of marriage is questioned as one woman tells her other half what his proposal might really have meant. They’re funny, comic scenes, but also get through to a harsh truth about the way we talk to one another.

A few months ago, when talking to her for a piece about the season, Birch told me that Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifestowas a source of inspiration for the piece (if you haven’t read it, follow that link. It’s well worth a read, if only for the arguments it inspires). The S.C.U.M. of the title stands for the ‘Society for Cutting Up Men’ and, yes, Solanas’ argument is exactly that – she argues for the outlawing and murder of Men (who she carefully defines in the treatise). It’s difficult to work out how serious Solanas was, but regardless of how many pinches of salt you take when reading it, her deconstruction of gender politics and its logical conclusion are nonetheless fascinating.

All theatre is, of course, obsessed with language – visual, musical, aural, oral, explicit, implicit or subtextual – but what Birch does so successfully is deconstruct it without making it seem meaningless. Watching the actors in rehearsal, it’s not like the subversions and gags made in the script aren’t natural; everything is invested in, and feels all the more real and awkward for it. The four actors in the piece – Scarlett Brookes, Rob Boulter, Ruth Gemmell and Mimi Ndiweni – each throw themselves into the situations and sketches with force and energy, demonstrating and in fact reinforcing Birch’s point about how these patterns and structures of language are deeply entrenched.

One moment in particular sticks out from watching rehearsals for Revolt. She said. Revolt again. On my first day in the room, a scene was being rehearsed in which a grandmother, mother and daughter meet in tense but unexplained circumstances. At one moment, a man (played by Rob) enters only to be told to “Get out”. On this particular occasion, Rob wasn’t called to rehearsals, meaning that Joe Wilde, the assistant director, stood in for this moment. Here, the only two men in the rehearsal room for this play were interchangeable, once again inverting ‘traditional’ roles and in the process undermining them.

Though there was an arguable lack of discussion about feminism and sexism in theatre when Erica Whyman and her team first pitched the idea over a year ago, the past year has seen a noticeable shift in outlook and approach, bringing with it a new passion and quality of debate which I’ve not experienced in my years of theatre-going. In November, the National came under fire – rightly, in my opinion – not only for selecting just one piece authored by a woman (London Road) for its birthday gala but also for having a woeful 50-year record regarding the production of plays by women writers. Then, in the space of a month, we had two high-profile plays in London, Blurred Linesand The Mistress Contract– at The Shed and the Royal Court respectively – which interrogated the role of women in the twenty-first century and asked questions about our attitude to feminism. Within this time, there have also been dozens of smaller-scale plays – Fleabag, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, the RSC’s own gender-swapped Taming of the Shrew– which have investigated similar ideas. Midsummer Mischief, then, comes at a time when British theatre at large might just be starting to take this subject seriously.

What feels special about these four plays is that none of them feel overtly or off-puttingly ‘political’, even though each one of them very much is. As far as I’m aware, the word “feminist” isn’t mentioned once in either the plays or the publicity (indeed, in Birch’s play, a point is made of silencing it: “Am I a (…)?” one character says, “Of course I am, I have a daughter”). They are, however, very much “feminist” plays (whatever that may mean), and in both their content and process of creation try to fight against prevailing ideologies. We don’t have to engage with their politics, but they invite you to do so in a subtle and imaginative way; “It’s political theatre in the best possible way”, Joe suggested.

When chatting to Joe about the plays and the discussions the team have been having, he told me a big part of the conversation focussed around neoliberal capitalism and its ability to appropriate countercultures. Economics is not often mentioned in the same breath as feminism, but when our lives are governed by economists and the exchange of wealth, we must begin to learn how to relate those ideas to one another. It’s an idea which The Ant and the Cicada, (Timberlake Wertenbaker’s contribution to the season) makes, but it can also be seen in Birch’s play when, for example, a woman tries to sell “merch” bearing feminist slogans in order to make a personal profit. The reason why neoliberalism ‘works’ so well is that any time a group tries to fight against an aspect of its culture, the system somehow subsumes and neutralises the threat (think Spice Girls), making them a part of economic structures whilst allowing them to remain just different enough to have an identity and continue their fight.

But that’s a discussion for next time…

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