You have to have respect for a piece of theatre that makes strangers talk to each other as they leave the building… even if that is only to express their utter bafflement at what they’d just seen. As I exited the Almeida‘s auditorium after a preview performance of The Writer, the young man sitting next to me caught my eye and laughed, “I just… don’t know what to say about that…”. I couldn’t agree more – and that’s a good thing.
Unashamedly provocative, Ella Hickson has created a piece of drama which skates through styles, constant fresh attempts to find the perfect approach to tackle huge themes. How pervasive is the patriarchy? Is it possible to ever escape its influence? What matters more: artistic vision or mass popularity or sales? Intent or effect? Having a clear and uncompromising message, or weakening that message so that it can actually get across to your audience? I’m not sure this play answers any of those questions, something which can only be a strength. This is theatre that makes you think.
Hickson’s formal innovation is experimental and exciting, as we are tossed through events in a young writer’s life. She is adept at switching from genuinely funny, heightened, back-and-forths to realism to mythical storytelling soliloquies and back again. The naturalistic acting is continually undercut by the unhidden scene changes; actors change costumes and members of stage management (almost all women) build the sets in front of the audience, never letting anyone for a moment forget that this is a piece of theatre. The writer’s world, a world which always feels unreal, fake, is created; nothing feels secure or grounded.
Romola Garai in the titular role shows the writer’s growth in confidence beautifully, transforming from doubtful and self-questioning, to someone with a front, a defence up against the world. The number of different orgasms she has to have, each with their own significance, is a thing to behold – if excruciatingly awkward for her audience (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write).
At the risk of sounding like the men in the play (played with superb smugness by Samuel West and Michael Gould), sometimes the writer’s character is too self-involved to the point of being irritating. She isn’t supposed to be likeable, and that’s the point – even an ardent feminist desperate to dismantle the patriarchy will find it hard to empathise with her from very early on. Everyone will – and should – find elements of Hickson’s writing challenging.
Hickson anticipates many of the key criticisms that will be thrown at this piece. Following a mythic – and slightly dull – piece of storytelling in the middle of the play, the male director (Gould) enters: “You can’t end on that!” Cue a sigh of relief and a burst of laughter from the worried audience. This doesn’t necessarily excuse the flaws, but it makes them seem to have some sort of point. Have we all been conditioned to enjoy quick verbal sparring because that is the male aesthetic? The questions raised just about justify the mild boredom (props also to Richard Howell’s lighting for making the stage beautiful during this section). That being said, surely allegorical tales of a mysterious island without men and over-heightened tales of making love by campfires are not the only option for a female aesthetic?!
You may not like parts of this play. You may not like it at all. But, insidious in its complexity, the questions it raises will stick with you for a long time.
Star Rating: ****
Go if: you like theatre that challenges, questions, makes you think.
The Writer at Almeida Theatre, London runs until 26th May 2018.
The show lasts 2 hours, no interval.
Captioned performance on 11th May, Audio Described performance on 19th May.