The Royal Shakespeare Company has truly outdone itself this summer, programming the Midsummer Mischief Festival alongside its main stage season of revivals, to create a body of work which puts women at the centre and pushes the boundaries of what we know the RSC to be, as well as theatre itself. In this atmosphere of change and radicalism, four playwrights present work which responds to the provocation “well-behaved women rarely make history”, each with starkly different, but no less exciting results.

The Midsummer Mischief Festival comprises a programme of four plays which are shown in pairs in repertory style. Programme A boasts Timberlake Wertenbaker’s, The Ant and the Cicada and Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, two plays which are expertly crafted and as visually arresting as they are groundbreaking in their content.

The Ant and the Cicada is a rich and compelling play about money, family and loyalty, set against the backdrop of a once great, now crumbling Greece. We see Selina (Ruth Gemmell) and Alex (John Bowe) grapple with the free-spirited Zoe (Julie Legrand) for control of the future of an estate which holds their family history as well as a local importance. The play resonates with classical Greek tragedy, not only for its setting but what appears to be a traditional structure, as well as for exploring the well-trodden ground of the clash between commercial interest and culture. However, Wertenbaker cleverly wrong-foots us, thanks to the arrival of the Goddess, Bobbalina, (Mimi Ndiweni), who steers the piece from the expected to the experimental by inviting us to participate in the play’s politics. Ultimately, as is law, we are reminded that “In a Greek tragedy, everybody loses,” thanks to the surprising and shocking ending which truly drives Wertenbaker’s message home.

The piece is colourful and thoroughly dramatic, brought to life with verve by a cast which is undeniably strong across the board (and who go on to feature in the other plays in Programme A and B.) Erica Whyman’s direction is bold and detailed, making for gripping storytelling as well as plenty of hilarious moments amid the play’s huge gravitas. Certainly, The Ant and the Cicada bodes well for the rest of the Midsummer Mischief festival programme, thanks to this deeply imaginative response to the original provocation which makes for a thoroughly engaging piece of theatre.

Despite the experimental and playful nature of the Midsummer Mischief festival as a whole, which allowed the writers to feely respond to the provocation however they saw fit, little can truly prepare you for Birch’s offering, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. Comprising the second half of Programme A, this daring non-linear, non naturalistic piece explores various facets of the female experience, from how women are shaped by everything from language to the male gaze, and it is nothing short of mind-blowing – not only for its being a rousing call to action, but due to the power of its form and topped by the searingly confident and witty performances of the cast (Robert Boulter, Scarlett Brookes, Ruth Gemmell and Mimi Ndiweni.)
The play is full of brilliant moments which encourage us to completely re-wire how we think of gender roles, language and the body, a highlight being the inversion of the language of sex: indeed, why do we say we make love ‘to’ somebody, instead of ‘with’? Equally, we see a plethora of issues and contradictions explored through inventive vignettes, ultimately ending in an anarchic cacophony of shouting, paint, water, smashed watermelons, porn and the sale of hymen. It’s clear Birch is angry, and – we come to learn – with good reason, ultimately calling for a revolution to change the face of society to something quite unrecognisable and female-led. What may be the greatest success of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again is Birch’s ability to find a narrative form which stands outside of those which we are familiar with in popular culture; largely male-centred narratives where women are polarised into virgins, mothers and whores. Instead, Birch relinquishes character, traditional narrative and chronology, questioning language (which in itself is inherently male-centred) to create a piece which is explosive and damning, and which, for standing outside the structures we know, asks us to reconsider and reject them.

Again, Whyman’s direction is right on the mark, supported by a cast who wholeheartedly commit to the concept and content, making the piece entirely arresting – a great decision on Whyman’s part to ease us in with Wertenbaker’s more slow-burning offering. The play is both dramatic and a demonstration; it’s compelling and hilarious; it’s sharply to the point while at the same time theatrical and full of powerful images. It’s absolutely essential viewing.

Read Lisa’s review of Programme B here.