Ella Hickson’s new play is a multi-layered polemic on the modern state of sexual politics. Submitted to the theatre three days before the Harvey Weinstein story broke, it is a prescient drama within a drama within a drama.
It starts with a 24-year-old woman (played uncompromisingly by Lara Rossi) heading back into a theatre to retrieve her bag before she is quizzed by the show’s unnamed director (played by Samuel West).
Rossi’s character expresses her distaste for theatre’s general failure to tackle important issues of the day, while he makes it clear that the medium needs to be commercial to survive. It then transpires that this odiously smug man had encouraged this woman, who he doesn’t recognise, six years before and asked her to submit some written work to him. And had then tried to seduce her.
Her denunciation of the play she has just seen – “old men saying fascinating things about time and history while women in hot pants lean over desks"– is thus given considerably more punch.
If that all sounds slightly self-involved and self-referential, that’s because it is. The lively opening exchange is then dissected in an audience Q&A with insightful questions asked by what turns out to be actors playing theatregoers.
It transpires that this opening section is in fact a piece written by Romola Garai's writer, an overly nervous woman who, like Rossi’s character, has ambitions to make theatre something that matters and will change the world. Next we meet the earlier play’s "real" director played by Michael Gould– an even more clunkingly unwoke figure who really doesn’t get anything about sexism and racism.
Garai's writer is seen as an unhappy girlfriend mulling over a film offer. Her suit-wearing boyfriend, again played by West (below), wants her to take the money – a cool £40,000. He spends all day in a job he hates selling football boots. Why can’t she just bend her principles and make their lives easier? But in lines Garai delivers with feeling and power, her character makes it clear she wants to write mythic stories that transform the world. Like all the men in the play, the boyfriend doesn’t get it.
It’s a strange play which packs in passion and seriousness, and its fascinating structure gives it the power to surprise. But I wouldn’t call it subtle.
There's a last section in particular could stretch the patience of audiences. In a dreamlike reality Garai's character then embarks on a same-sex relationship with Rossi's character – both characters literally taking the plunge and swimming to a jungle paradise where they consummate their union. We then head to modern day London featuring the pair as a female same-sex couple in apparent domestic happiness. It's not clear whether the ending is meant to symbolise some kind of advancement or resolution: is this a lesbian relationship being portrayed honestly and faithfully – or just the ending the dodgy director was looking for?
And as one of the audience members says in the opening salvo, there are many kinds of power structures, many kinds of perceived victimhood. Why didn’t the opening section reference the fact that Rossi is mixed race, one of the fictional punters asks? It’s a good question. And is this production, written by a privately-educated playwright in the heart of north London, simply part of the same corrupted structural morass? Maybe we’ll discover in Hickson’s next play. Because she’s certainly a writer to watch.
The Writer is at the Almeida Theatre London until 26 May