“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.