When I ask Florence Keith-Roach about the title of her piece, Eggs, she describes her sister’s gastronomic quirk: “she hates eggs, and finds them the most disgusting things.” This led to the writer thinking about the egg in a broader context and the odd relationship people have with it: the peculiarity of vegetarians eating the incredibly life-giving things, and how they crop up symbolically in culture. Ultimately, from thinking about egg the food, she started thinking about the human ovum, and the fertility that society suddenly forces young women to confront.
This is a theme that interests Keith-Roach, who now finds herself constantly going in for casting “as a young mum”. “In the media, sex symbols are younger and younger, and from the mid-20s up you’re put into this mum category,” she explains. This shift in perception exists outside the world of arts, for example, “the internet manages to send you pop ups seemingly there to create paranoia”, ads that remind women that their biological clock is ticking. Yet Keith-Roach also notices that women her age are still young, and not necessarily interested in dealing with these issues, as they are busy “with a whole host of [other] complex ones.”
This chasm is just one of several rifts Keith-Roach describes – she continues to speak about the reality of a culture that celebrates “the very beautiful, rich capitalist woman saying ‘I’m a feminist!’’, whilst men on Twitter continually harass women horrifically, and sexually, whenever they talk about feminism.”
These conflicting forces inform Keith-Roach’s dark comedy, in which two female characters, also in their late twenties, discuss sexuality, careers, and ambitions, in “a play about external systemic pressures, and how these women internalise them.”
“The world is telling you that you are this fertile creature and you could have it all… but what happens when you still feel like a bit of a failure, when you’re not in a relationship or even having sex or connecting, and you’re not being a mother and you’re not this and you’re not that, and there is an alienation from this world that tells us we can do whatever we want to do but we’re not..? That’s a phenomenon my characters are going through.”
Keith-Roach goes on to discuss the doubts she had to overcome whilst writing this, doubts borne from “a very male canon” and a lifetime of “reading men”. Citing Grayson Perry’s writing on “the default man”, she discusses how characters on stage are predominately male, white, middle-class and of “a certain age”, and how we’re taught that’s “what art is” – a belief that affects female writers. “You come to believe that people are going to be critiquing your work,” Keith-Roach explains, “it’s almost like you’re seeking approval from this default male gaze.”
“When writing, let’s say – as I do in this play – about two women discussing in depth how they sexually pleasure themselves, there is a shudder of ‘oh gosh is this theatre, is this right for theatre,’ when really who defines what is right for theatre?” she asks, “the audiences we attracted to Eggs in Edinburgh were largely female and young.” Her work taps into the hunger for the female gaze – a hunger Keith-Roche discovered she had herself.
Discussing her movement from actor to a writer-performer, she speaks on how “a lot of the roles I was going up for were pretty two-dimensional: a lot of just playing the girlfriend. I started thinking of the sort of parts I would want to be playing, or that my friends would want to be playing… parts I wanted to see on stage or in the cinema or on television, and that’s when I really began writing.”
Inspired by “the independent cinema coming out of America where women were directing, writing and acting”, Keith-Roach also found herself getting more and more involved in debates about gender disparity in the arts, and expressing her interests in female representation through her work. Though her first play had a cast of three men and three women, she found for her second she wanted to focus entirely on women.
“There are lots of plays with just men in them,” she points out, and she wanted to “focus on the female narrative. I wanted to write about these stories, and I wanted to write about these women.”
Keith-Roach talks about how within her play the titular egg turns from being a source of anxiety, into a source of power. “For these characters, there’s strength in the fact they have these eggs, and they can give these eggs away, or they can freeze them, and actually eggs really are this sort of autonomy.” Something about this independence, this taking stock of one’s power of creativity, reminds me of the writer herself: a woman who responds to a problematic society, establishing her female voice through her art, and one who encourages everyone to create the work they hunger for, and write the characters they want to see.
Eggs is playing at The Vaults Theatre from 24 Feb – 6 March as part of the VAULT Festival 2016.