Ella Hickson’s latest play at the Almeida pulls no punches in setting its agenda. It begins with a woman looking for her bag. Straying for a moment onto the stage, her face glowing in the lights, she is interrupted by a man. An older man. A white man. They talk about the play they have both just seen in the same auditorium in which we the audience are sitting. They start to disagree. What does the world in here mean in relation to the world out there? It is then they fight. Who is really watching? Whose voice really counts? Where are all the women? Where is all the power?
It is from that first bruising, comprehensive, and rhetorically dazzling debate that The Writer begins to tear away at its theatrical skin, jumping out at you in wild, exciting, provocative vitality. Over two hours it moves between six different scenes, every one flipping the concept of the piece on its head. We are never sure what we are watching. Is this the creation of the eponymous Writer or is it, in fact, her life? Either way, Hickson tries one formal experiment after another and each time brings a different gender-dynamic under her lens.
Romola Garai as the eponymous Writer is brilliant. A vocal feminist campaigner herself, she has slowly begun to define her career by powerful performances of political women. Lara Rossi meanwhile deserves no less praise. Both actors have a charisma which, as I am sure was the intention, far outshines that of their male co-stars. The passion evoked in moments of righteous anger is truly blistering and one only wishes there was more of it to go about in parliament.
One of the things Hickson does best in detailing the attempts of a female Writer is carefully show the ways in which women’s voices are variously silenced, interpolated and framed by men. The play’s vacillation between experimentalism and realism, idealism and pragmatism, expansion and reduction, clearly symbolises the struggle between female imagination and male board members. In fact, I feel somewhat uncomfortable myself interpreting, paraphrasing or even praising Hickson from a male perspective. I would have been in half a mind to ditch the review if only I wasn’t worried Cherwell or myself might be fined. Dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy indeed.
Besides the fantastic writing, the show pulls almost every theatrical trick out of the bag. Richard Howell’s lighting design includes beautiful shadow puppetry, projections and blackouts. Meanwhile Anna Fleischle’s stage design is cleverly versatile. Bits and pieces of set pop up, fly in, and unfold and yet even when the stage is bare the small bits of set dressing and the way in which the sheer back wall of the Almeida is emphasized make it potently evocative.
The vital and relevant quality of the show needs no more proof than the way in which current events seems to have proved it right in so many ways. It contains a moment which feels particularly biting in the year of the Time’s Up campaign. And a reference to a baby onstage used to distract us from problematic portrayals of gender seems to target one of the biggest shows of the year. It is whip-smart and the anger it depicts will no doubt continue to grow. Hickson’s passion is palpable and I cannot recommend her work enough. This play looks straight into the abyss of the political moment and shouts back. Thank God we’ve got the Writer on our side.