Getting to Maiden Speech, the feminist voices festival taking over the confusingly named Theatre N16 (it’s actually south of the river in Balham), is a theatrical experience in itself. Tucked away on the top floor of The Bedford Arms, finding your way there feels like an immersive challenge.
First there is the sea of Stetsons crowding the bar as part of the pub’s Texmas – a festival celebrating Texan culture, notably in October – demonstrating that London never fails to surprise. Then, taking the winding staircase in search of the adjoining Theatre N16, you stumble upon an open door and a ballroom dancing class in tentative swing. On a wet Thursday evening in what I assumed to be the fairly dull neighbour to Brixton, confirmed bright light of the south, Balham shows surreal promise. When I finally reach the top of the building, admittedly a little breathless, I’m in need of a rest. Maiden Speech, thankfully, doesn’t grant my wish.
It’s fitting. In the week following the Weinstein scandal blowing open the doors on Hollywood’s misogynistic ‘secret’, these one-woman shows focusing on women under the gaze – or should I say threatening glare – of masculinity feel like vital viewing.
First up is Roxane Bourges’s The White Feminist Guide to Sex and Hip Hop. This apologetic ode to her favourite music genre, and discussion of what that says about her as a feminist, may seem niche, but in fact it’s a broad conversation. Intersecting her raps are musings on her whiteness, and her bisexuality, as well as sexual desire itself. Delivered with confidence, it’s thought-provoking and wonderfully self-aware. Bourges’s rapping, twerking, and emotive poetry entice both uncontrollable laughter and later engaged furrowed brows from the audience. The tongue-in-cheek, pre-recorded video shot outside Buckingham Palace as Bourges’s mimes Beyoncé’s Flawless is the unexpected pinnacle.
Admittedly the script could be more polished, and the deliberate moments of self-doubt and coy ‘sorry’s which litter the script become a little wearing. Bourges would do better to drop the faux bashfulness, and let her confidence do the talking if she really wants the audience to take her seriously.
Another woman taking on the stage alone is Niamh Watson in her rendition of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction: The One Woman Play. Friend of Weinstein for 25 years, and overcome with “pain” at the revelations Tarantino has still not released a full statement commenting on the allegations. Therefore, Tarantino and his classic violent thriller feels like a strangely apt choice.
Undeniably accomplished, and surprisingly compelling, Watson dominates the stage and the script, making the performance her own, not Tarantino’s. That said, a growing sense of frustration develops as you realise that this performance will never allow Watson’s own voice to speak out. Maiden Speech is billed as a festival of fresh voices and deliberate or not, it means you leave the theatre full of questions, and desperate to know more about the silenced woman.
These one-woman shows are fresh, and compelling, much like Theatre N16 itself. Their voices may seem hidden away at the top of a staircase, but they are shouting out and it’s important that we listen.
The White Feminist Guide to Sex and Hip Hop and Pulp Fiction played Theatre N16 until 21st October.