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Women Power and Politics
In between, and linking, the plays are Verbatim Reports from women members of parliament collected by Gillian Slovo with many witty and candid observations on their situation in the male dominated Houses of Parliament. Apparently there are more members of parliament called John than there are women members! These soupcons of feminine observation come from Edwina Currie, Anne Widdicome, Jacqui Smith and Shirley Williams representing all parties.
The plays open with Marie Jones' The Milliner and the Weaver, set in Northern Ireland in 1918. Stella Gonet the posh Suffragette milliner, Elspeth, visits Henrietta, Niamh Cusack's cottage weaver. The women discuss the cause of Irish independence, the women's movement for suffrage seen here in the context of catholic suffrage and the imminent role that Northern Irishmen will play in the First World War.
Moira Buffini's Handbagged is a comic contrast about the relationship which prevailed between the Queen "Q" (Kika Markham) and the Prime Minister Mrs Margaret Thatcher "T" (Stella Gonet) through these characters looking back at their younger selves (Claire Cox as Liz and Heather Craney as Mags) and commenting for us on what we hear happening. Of course what marks the physical appearance of both these leaders— one elected, one a constitutional monarch— is the styled, permed hair and the ever present over the arm handbag. Buffini's play is pure satire and hugely enjoyable. Tom Mannion supports as Thatcher's fellow free market theorist Ronald Reagan. What is interesting is that the monarch has to speak up for the poor and dispossessed in her Commonwealth in the face of the march of Maggie's rampant Thatcherism.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz goes further back into history to give us the most prominent Englishwoman, Queen Elizabeth I (a super performance from a white faced, red wigged Niamh Cusack) and her relationship with her favourite the Lord of Essex (Oliver Chris) and an imagined encounter with the Scottish Presbyterian railer against women, John Knox (Tom Mannion). Of course, his treatise The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women was focussed against the Catholic monarchs Mary Queen of Scots and Mary Tudor. The historical events of Elizabeth's life I know well from the beheading of her mother Anne Boleyn through the signing of the death warrant of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots and the defeat of the Spanish Armada but each time I hear about Mary Queen of Scots' little dog running under the newly executed dead queen's skirts, I am moved.
Lucy Kirkwood rounds off the historical plays with Bloody Wimmin a look at the protest group of women who camped by the American Base at Greenham Common in Berkshire from 1981 for nineteen years. Kirkwood then comes forward to 2009's camp on Blackheath where the grown up man, a baby born at Greenham Common, whom we are told lived in a potato sack for his first year of life, is joining the Climate Change protest.
The Now plays start with Joy Wilkinson's look at the dispossessed Margaret Beckett (Niamh Cusack), ousted in a leadership election not on grounds of ability or experience but because she wasn't pretty. Zinnie Harris' The Panel has a group of five men trying to choose a new employee from a list of women candidates with all the unminuted chauvinist and sexist prejudices we suspect are voiced behind closed doors. Bola Agbaje's Playing the Game looks at the perceptions of the student electorate when a girl stands for election as President of the Students' Union, how she is manipulated and advised and the repercussions of their advice. Akousa (Amy Loughton) learns that standing places her in the public arena, too sexy and she's labelled a slag, too dull and they say she's a lesbian. Sam Holcroft's Pink has a confrontation in a waiting room for a television studio between a female pornographer Kim (Heather Craney) and the Prime Minister Bridget (Stella Gonet) whose husband is about to be exposed as a client. The interesting proposal from the PM is that the pornographer should change the pitch of her market from attracting male clients to a pornographer who empowers women. Finally in Sue Townsend's dark comedy You, Me and Wii a parliamentary candidate Selina Snow (Claire Cox) stumbles into a house of three generations of women where no one goes out.
The common set has floorboards painted with Britannia flanked by the Union flag, the paint worn away in places. There is the suggestion above of a glass ceiling broken through in places but still present. The performances and direction are first class as a relatively small group of actors take on a range of amazing and challengingly diverse parts. Hats off too to costume and makeup for those authentic looking characters from the finery of Elizabeth I to the woolly hats of Greenham Common!
The Women, Power and Politics plays are more disparate by necessity than the Afghanistan cycle (returning to the Tricycle for all of August and then off to the USA) but I did enjoy the linking Verbatim Reports, collected and edited by Gillian Slovo, with their trivia of quirky asides. Some of the plays have a rather tenuous connection to politics; for instance The Panel, Pink and You Me and Wii. Not everyone will like all plays and I personally found the Then plays more enjoyable overall than the Now but that reflects my interest in history rather than present day politics!
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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