Programme B, comprising new work by E.V.Crowe and Abi Zakarian, offers the final two plays which make up the Midsummer Mischief’s radical set of new work. With a very different tone and texture to those of Programme A, these two plays, I Can Hear You and This Is Not An Exit examine the RSC’s Deputy Artistic Director’s provocation that “well behaved women rarely make history”.
Indeed, E.V.Crowe’s piece poignantly explores how a well-behaved and doting mother, who had a “happy life” may actually have surrendered her identity to thankless motherhood, unbeknownst to her family. In the wake of the loss of a son and brother, and with an injection of the supernatural thanks to kooky crystal-reader, Ruth (Ruth Gemmell), the family realise that they only knew their mother in relation to what she did for them, and indeed that she may be happier in the afterlife than she was in the home.
I Can Hear You makes a subtle point about the often non-reciprocal dependency relationship we have with our mothers, and moreover how women often exist only in their relation to men. Crowe cleverly weaves in a dilemma for Ellie (Scarlett Brookes), who is torn between going out to join her husband in Dubai to try for children, or to stay and look after her demanding brother (even if he is dead). Crowe creates a character in Ellie who is incredibly true to life, lacking the emotional articulacy to escape her predicament, becoming pent up and rigid as a result. Indeed, in the post-show discussion, an audience member pointed out that she hadn’t liked Ellie, only for Crowe to deftly make the point that we don’t usually like King Lear or Hamlet that much, or feel we have to like them, but this rubric does not often apply to women. Instead, thanks to how women are typically characterised on television and beyond, we often find it difficult to process or accept them when they defy the (usually demure and pleasant) archetypes they are usually pigeon-holed into.
I Can Hear You had some lovely moments, and was cleverly framed by scene changes which captured Ellie’s frustration and made great use of the space. The play did, however, feel a little slight, particularly when held up against the gravity and thoroughness of those in Programme A, though I Can Hear You nonetheless takes an interesting look at well-behaved women who wish they could be otherwise.
This is followed by Abi Zakarian’s offering, This Is Not An Exit, which follows Gulch (Scarlett Brookes) as she wrestles with the legacy of her mother (Julie Legrand) who campaigned for equality, against the hollowness of the women’s magazine she writes for. The play does somewhat cover familiar ground – most people being well aware of the toxic nature of women’s magazines and the images they project of femininity. Nonetheless, a highlight had to be Ruth Gemmell as Nora, encouraging Gulch to release her inner lioness, the pair of them crawling around and roaring to highlight the ridiculousness of the headlines which characterise such magazines. Mimi Ndiweni as the provocative and gyrating Ripley, formed another part of Gulch’s psyche, the demands of modern womanhood eventually driving Gulch to distraction.
There was plenty of merit to be found in the ideas at the heart of this piece, though overall the play was somewhat cloudy and unclear in its delivery, a combination of Jo McInnes’ direction and the text itself jumping from theme to theme demonstratively, with little cohesion. Indeed, This Is Not An Exit is surprisingly brief, never taking the time to really delve into or explore the issues it seeks to unearth, leading to, overall, this half of the Midsummer Mischief programme not quite standing up to the undeniable brilliance of Programme A.
Nonetheless, the programme in its entirety must be commended for allowing women not only to have a voice but offer radical perspectives, solutions and alternatives on the way we live now. Particularly in light of the provocation that “well behaved women rarely make history”, these plays, with their big, bold ideas, images and stellar casts, make themselves as a whole unforgettable.
The Midsummer Mischief Festival played at the Royal Shakespeare Company. For more information see the Royal Shakespeare Company website.