Ella Hickson struck gold with her last play, Oil (2016), which spanned 150 years of female history. Her new play may look at first like a Pirandellian box of tricks but is no less ambitious in its attempt to address the purpose of art, the nature of gender and the need for the mythic in a society governed by fixed, male-determined rules. Playful and impassioned, it keeps one riveted for two uninterrupted hours.
It starts with a bruising encounter between two figures in a deserted theatre. The woman (Lara Rossi) is an angry 24 year old who detests the hidebound conventions of modern drama and whose driving ambition is to “dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy”. The man (Samuel West) is a part of the theatrical establishment governed by a cautious pragmatism. The woman’s view of theatre as a sacred space with a political purpose is met with a mixture of amused condescension and a vain attempt to co-opt her fire and fury. It sets the tone for much of the ensuing action.
But Hickson immediately asks what we are watching: real people, or characters created by the Writer (Romola Garai) and manipulated by the Director (Michael Gould)? Without giving too much away, what we see over the following four scenes is an extension of the initial debate. Garai’s Writer is a fervent idealist wrestling with the compromises demanded in her personal life by her boyfriend and in her professional life by her director. This leads her into a quest for a more tribal way of living and a rejection of the polarised fixities of gender.
Above all, the play is asking a big question: do we need new theatrical forms to reflect a society in the midst of a sexual revolution? Hickson’s approach is witty, clever and keeps the ground shifting under one’s feet – Rossi’s character attacks the kind of play that introduces real-life babies only for Hickson’s to do precisely that.
But while Rossi questions the power of “old white guys” to set the critical rules, I still have two reservations. Hickson portrays the two key men in the play – the Writer’s boyfriend and director – as implacable materialists: she seems to deny the possibility that men can unite with women in overthrowing the existing order. And in placing so much stress on the solitary anguish of the Writer, Hickson is in danger of endorsing the privileged despair of the lucky few.
But this is a play about big issues, and Blanche McIntyre’s superbly inventive production and Anna Fleischle’s ingenious design reinforce the point that Hickson’s play practises what it preaches: it adopts precisely the provocative, non-naturalistic form it is asking for. Garai is also a wonderfully credible mix of the tentative and the assured and nothing in the play is better than her realisation that, in her sex life, she has achieved the domination she deplores in men. Rossi also captures perfectly the blazing intensity required in the opening scene and both West and Gould, who hovers on the edge of the action like a puppet-master, convey the male desire for control.
In the end this is a play about a Writer’s desire to change the world and it leaves us urgently debating whether theatre itself is a potential instrument of revolution or a bastion of the status quo.
- At the Almeida theatre, London, until 26 May. Box office: 020-7359 4404.