Take a real-life event mirroring the plot of Stephen King’s “Misery,” add a self-aggrandizing feminist icon, sprinkle with the consciously absurd contrivances of Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” and what have you got? “The Female of the Species.” Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s comedy ingredients are certainly bold, but the satirical farce meal she serves up is less than satisfying.
Murray-Smith based her 2006 play, premiered in Melbourne, on a much-publicized story about feminist writer and academic Germaine Greer being taken prisoner in her Essex home by a furious female student. But as Murray-Smith has repeatedly asserted both in interviews and in the published play text, “the characters and story of my play are entirely imagined.”
Nevertheless, her play sails close to the wind in terms of the flamboyantly intellectual and equally alliteratively named central character Margot Mason (Eileen Atkins), whose breakthrough ’70s bestseller “The Cerebral Vagina” is, by implication, not a million miles away from “The Female Eunuch.”
At home, wrestling with writer’s block, a deadline, a deceiving phone call to her publisher and the one-handed removal of her bra from under her top (bra-burning being a key topic for ’70s feminists), comically grand Margot is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Molly (a shiveringly nerdy and needy Anna Maxwell Martin), who turns out to be one of her ex-students.
Initially presenting herself as Margot’s No. 1 fan, deranged Molly is actually boiling with resentment. Wielding a gun, she handcuffs Margot to her work-table and proceeds to hector her because her mother, following Margot’s pronouncements to the letter, abandoned her and committed suicide, clutching Margot’s first book. On top of that, Molly has had an operation to avoid having children and it’s all Margot’s fault.
The would-be farce begins to thicken with the appearance of Margot’s fraught daughter Tess (Sophie Thompson), who has gone AWOL in search of solitude. Conveniently, she wanders into the home of her constantly disparaging mother who she knows despises her life choices.
Director Roger Michell perfectly executes a visual gag with Tess sneaking out from hiding to land a heavy plaster bust on Molly’s head only to be stopped in her tracks by Molly revealing Margot’s casually brutal description of Tess.
She and all the other arrivals at this hostage party are given comedy setpiece speeches at the expense of Margot’s feminism. But laugh-strewn though many of them are, they don’t build tension because the plot lacks consistency. Farce is utterly dependent upon believability, so if auds question the plot’s mechanics, everything collapses — and this plot has more holes than a tennis net.
Why, for example, does Molly detail Margot’s intellectual inconsistencies and then attack her for espousing a point of view that ruined her life? How come Bryan (Paul Chahidi) puts on a silly apron, the sort of garment Margot wouldn’t have in the house? Answer: to get a laugh.
Bryan accuses Margot of putting ideas ahead of people. Murray-Smith seems to put ideas and gags way ahead of consistent characterization and motive.
Take Con O’Neill’s Frank. His late appearance provides the extra perspective of the post-post-feminist male. Although O’Neill brings the house down with a perfectly timed assertion about women, there’s no convincing reason for him to be there.
Roger Michell, a stage and screen director whose hallmark is the finely calibrated restraint he elicits from actors, here encourages exaggerated performances to underline the play’s artificiality. That’s also delineated by Mark Thompson’s self-conscious set with ’30s-style floor-to-ceiling French windows looking out over a hillside, complete with plastic cow, stretching back in heightened perspective.
Greer has publicly distanced herself from this play, claiming not to have read it and reportedly describing Murray-Smith as “an insane reactionary.” She may not be too wide of the mark, judging by lines like Molly’s unchallenged “Men aren’t our problem. Old feminists are.” (The italics are Murray-Smith’s.) It’s the kind of line that makes you realize that if this play had been written by a man, it probably wouldn’t have been staged. That doesn’t make it brave, just biased.
Ultimately, Margot is allowed a small smile of triumph, but the one-sided play roundly trounces her lifetime of politics. And in case there is any doubt about where Murray-Smith’s sympathies lie, check out the dramatis personae in the published text: Margot is described as “60-ish, handsome, impressive, a monster.”