×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: Timely Drama ‘The Writer’ With Romola Garai

With:
Romola Garai, Michael Gould, Lara Rossi, Samuel West.

“The Writer” has split the critics — as proper writing probably should. Some have dismissed Ella Hickson’s new play at the Almeida Theatre, about a frustrated female playwright pushing against patriarchal power, as a petulant gaze into theater’s own navel. Others have hailed it as a dazzling deconstruction of the art form that resists and rebels against those structures.

In truth, it’s a bit of both, but in writing “The Writer” off, critics only play into its own criticisms. A play that refuses old rules and rejects old hierarchies — critical, as well as industrial — never wanted to be “good” anyway. Yet, for all it shows theater up, “The Writer” still stops short of throwing off its systemic shackles. Then again, how could it?

It starts with an almighty set-to: a 24-year-old woman, an aspiring writer, confronts a middle-aged man, an established director, about his latest production. She slams its unchecked, ingrained misogyny — hot women in hot pants, a gratuitous rape scene. He defends it as a critically acclaimed crowdpleaser. Where she demands oppositional art — theater as “a sacred space” — he parries, meekly, about ticket sales and funding cuts. Youthful idealism spars with washed-out realism, uncompromising purity with compromised pragmatism. But when he offers her a commission — a chance to put pen to politics — she refuses, unwilling to submit to his audiences, his aesthetics and his approval. Besides, last time they met, he tried to get off with her.

It’s an explosive opening, a #MeToo moment made flesh, but it is swiftly shown to be fictional — the first scene of a play by the eponymous writer played, scorchingly, by Romola Garai. “The Writer” follows her attempts to carve out both a career and a life on her own (feminist) terms, free from patriarchal permissions and male impositions. At work, she pushes against her overbearing director (Michael Gould), the male gatekeeper who holds the key to her professional success, while at home, she shakes off the wet fish boyfriend (Samuel West) who, having cooked up a cassoulet and selected a new sofa, urges her to accept well-paid work regardless of the compromises.

The Writer” plays the same game as a Pirandello play: It is a challenging play, in every sense of the word — hard on audiences and harder on theater itself. Hickson sets out to expose the unspoken orthodoxies of an art form that, for all it insists otherwise, remains rooted in patriarchal hierarchies and consumerist structures. She succeeds in spades. So much so that, in trying to escape those structures, in seeking an alternative dramatic shape and style, she ends up showing us quite how much “The Writer” remains bound by them: programmed by a male artistic director, sold at standard prices to a privileged audience, and constrained by the logical coherence that its protagonist disavows. Its eventual failure is a mark of its own success.

Thoughout it, Hickson makes clear how inescapable those forces can be — and how suffocating. Garai’s writer, forever clutching her throat as if struggling for breath or for words, butts up against them at every turn. To succeed, she has to defer to her director and cede to audience expectations. She argues her corner, furiously, only to wear herself out again and again, too mentally exhausted to take another “no.” At home, she clings to the walls and submits to sex she doesn’t particularly want. This is, at one level, a play about permission. Hickson’s writer needs it to get her play on and to take her coat off. The dialogue’s needle-sharp — as witty as it is weighty.

As the play unfolds, she strives to escape that — professionally, personally, and artistically. Structurally, “The Writer” mirrors itself, its second half a distorted reflection of its first. In each, an artistic falling out is followed by a domestic scene, but the play hinges on an epiphany: a dreamy monologue in which the writer is whisked off into the woods by Sembele, Zeus’ lover, to join a tribe of women living a new world order. Dismissed as self-indulgent waffle by her director, it nonetheless inspires her to forsake men, shacking up with a female lover in a flash new forest-and-floral flat purchased with the proceeds of her play’s success.

It’s never entirely clear, in director Blanche McIntyre’s artful staging, which of Hickson’s scenes is real and which is written, part of a play within a play. Her real set-to with her director echoes the fictional one she penned, while her home life plays out like a rickety old kitchen sink comedy — the mismatched walls of her flat are, in Anna Fleischle’s deceptively simple design, flimsy stage flats propped into place. Gould’s director looks on, constantly, from the wings. The question throughout is: What’s real and what’s not? The point is that what we take to be reality is as constructed as any stage play, its rules written by men and its existence dependent on our continued investment.

What the writer finds, in her new life, is a sacred space in which to live: a bubble of domestic, female bliss. It’s both a fiction and not. Outside their window, the glassy towers of the City of London gleam on as ever, but indoors, everything’s different. The writer’s life has been upturned and, in place of her previous regimented, unsatisfactory evening — shag before dinner before proposal before argument — everything’s jumbled up and generous with Larri Rossi’s lover. Tea follows beer, jokes cut disagreements short. Sex bubbles up during an appetizer, subsides, then starts again mid-main course. In fact, orgasms are “The Writer’s” key: One builds to a quick, compulsive climax like so much art; another is mutual and multiple, more like this succession of scenes. Its final finish, however, courtesy of a sizable double-headed dildo, shows how little has changed: power structures still stand, and someone still gets screwed.

London Theater Review: Timely Drama 'The Writer' With Romola Garai

Almeida Theatre, London; 325 seats; £32 ($44) top. Opened April 24, 2018; reviewed Apr 28. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Production: An Almeida Theatre production of a play in one act by Ella Hickson.

Creative: Directed by Blanche McIntyre; Design, Anna Fleischle; lighting, Richard Howell; sound, Emma Laxton; movement, Sasha Milavic Davies; video, Zakk Hein.

Cast: Romola Garai, Michael Gould, Lara Rossi, Samuel West.

More Legit

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

  • All About Eve review

    West End Review: Gillian Anderson and Lily James in 'All About Eve'

    To adapt a crass old adage: it’s “All About Eve,” not “All About Steve.” Stripping Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sharp-witted screenplay about a waning theater star of its period trappings, Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation fine-tunes its feminism for our own sexist age — image-obsessed, anti-aging, the time of Time’s Up. Rather than blaming Lily James’ [...]

  • Adam Shankman

    Listen: Why Adam Shankman Directs Every Movie Like It's a Musical

    Director Adam Shankman’s latest movie, the Taraji P. Henson comedy “What Men Want,” isn’t a musical. But as one of Hollywood’s top director-choreographers of musicals and musical sequences, he approaches even non-musicals with a sense of tempo. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “When I read a script, it processes in my head like a [...]

  • Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella' Review

    L.A. Theater Review: Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella'

    How much can you change “Cinderella” before it is no longer “Cinderella”? In the case of choreography maestro Matthew Bourne — who, it should be said, first unveiled his spin on the classic folk tale some 22 years ago — the music is most certainly “Cinderella” (Prokofiev’s 1945 score, to be exact), but the plot [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content