Women Redressed is a festival of theatrical brainstorming, combining the work of up-and coming-playwrights with that of more established writers. It is a programme of nine works, qualifying it as an event of epic proportions. Perhaps too epic. There is, after all, only so much gender pontification one can handle on a cold Sunday evening in east London. However, the daunting length of the festival does not diminish from the quality of the theatre presented, and the insightful nature of the questions the plays raise.
We are confronted with an entire spectrum of women’s concerns in the twenty-first century. Collegiate by Natalie Beech chillingly exposes the hypocrisy regarding female sexual activity and ‘slut-shaming’, specifically in club and student culture, whilst James Corley’s Norfolk analyses an older woman’s desperation for homosexual companionship. Both plays offer an opportunity for the audience to relate to the characters on stage, as the situations presented are reminiscent of injustices and emotions that permeate our everyday lives.
In contrast, Karla Williams’s Pretty Bitch and Amy NG’s Special Occasions create less universal narratives, the situations being specific to the characters on stage. The former is a sadistic monologue from a female convict, who describes how her romantic jealousy and desire for revenge drives her to maiming and physically assaulting her love rival (the phrase “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” springs to mind). The latter presents the microcosmic lives of an ex-patriot Jewish-Viennese mother and her daughter Nina, and analyses their relationship in terms of how children’s lives can come to mirror those of their parents. The mother, played (initially comically) by Caroline Burns Cooke, later goes on to reveal how as a child she escaped the horrors of the Holocaust during World War Two. In an emotional anecdote, she explains how her mother smuggled her out of Austria to safety in Shanghai, deciding to save her daughter’s life over that of her son’s – juxtaposing the stereotypical patriarchal attitudes of the early twentieth century.
This historical tone is also present in Jessica by Sayan Kent, which cleverly reimagines the story of the Last Supper, replacing Jesus and his disciples with “Jessica” and other female counterparts: Petra, Tomasin, Jude, Simone, Joanne and Mattea. They express their fears that their leader, Jessica, will be appropriated by male historians and leaders – “they’ll turn her into a man” – a concern that starkly reminds the audience of the male ownership and censorship of history.
Despite the evening’s overarching feminine focus, the most successful works are those that highlight feminism, gender issues and equality as concerns relevant to both men and women. A Better Pronoun confronts a mother’s confusion at her daughter’s descriptions of gender fluidity, cis-gender and transsexuality. It is easy to simultaneously empathise with the mother (who can only equate these new terms to David Bowie’s liberal sexual attitudes in the seventies and eighties) and the daughter, who struggles to define herself in a world of labels. Roger Goldsmith’s Counting the Days is a sophisticated duologue featuring a daughter who attempts to understand her father’s paedophilic activities, whilst The Male, Gaz by Freddie Van Der Velde considers the imbalance of sexual representations of males and females onscreen. As previously stated, plays such as these – which contemplate the plights of males and females in relation to one another – have a greater sense of complexity in comparison to works such as Five Kinds of Silence. The extract presented from the full-length play describes horrific episodes of domestic abuse imposed upon two sisters and a mother, shocking the audience with graphic descriptions yet not appearing to make a deeper comment.
Overall, Sheer Height’s debut at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston is a successful demonstration of their artistic manifesto. They proclaim that through their works they aim to give prominence to stories from a female perspective that are “all too infrequently brought to life.” This intention is clear in every minute of Women Redressed, with each play exploring the plight of females whilst also challenging the audience’s definition of gender.
Women Redressed played at the Arcola Theatre on 20 March. For more information see the Sheer Height Theatre website. Photo: Thomas Scurr