This is a deeply divided piece of theatre. On one hand, I’m sure the thespian community and the theatre critics will adore it, with abstract and high-brow discussions about the place for the commercialisation of art and the gendered power dynamic that accompany it. On the other hand, I fail to see how The Writer in any way reaches out to an audience that doesn’t identify as ‘thespy’, thereby creating a severely elitist atmosphere that seems to utterly contradict all it purports to be striving for.
Hickson’s new play is sure to be a cult classic. Romola Garai stuns as ‘the writer’ herself, existing in a world of rehearsal rooms dominated by men, in houses and flats that rise up around her, always acknowledging the two-dimensionality of the theatrical form. There’s no doubt that Hickson’s a genius – the piece twists from a rehearsal-room reading of a rather predictable argument between a young theatre student and an older theatre director to a limbo world of Sapphic demigods to a relationship where penetration by a dildo instantly infantilizes the receiver. It sprawls, it writhes, it refuses to be apologetic for its unconventionality, for taking up space. The four-strong cast chart the peaks and troughs of this limitless world with a concise intensity that carries the entire piece, Richard Howell’s lighting transforming from scene to scene with an ethereal touch, and not afraid to leave us in darkness.
The way The Writer is put onto the stage is stunning. The way it portrays male-female gendered interactions is stunning, the way the play wraps in on itself to parallel its scenes is stunning. But at the heart lies a deeply troubling message about art, about theatre, and about our perception of our audiences.
Garai’s character has an impassioned speech about her hatred of the commercialisation of the arts, of the emphasis on value, money, of not just letting art exist for art’s sake. In doing so, she ignores the whole concept of what performance can boil down to – someone in the space, someone watching – and wants to create things that are true to her, that are ‘honest’.
The issue is, is that this is a play aimed squarely at the theatrical community. This is a play so littered with in-jokes, so utterly indistinguishable to anyone that doesn’t exist within our privileged sphere that they would leave totally bewildered about feeling even more alienated and excluded than they might have beforehand. Yes, art should exist for art’s sake. But theatre depends on its audience, without the ‘someone watching’ it wouldn’t exist – and as such The Writer feels selfish, nigh masturbatory. Look at all us theatre people, here to watch a theatre play about theatre. Look at this play that’s telling us that we, the audience, aren’t really important, that the ‘art’ matters more than we do – we all nod sagely; yes, we all hate budgets, yes, marketing can be a horrendous thing. But the attitude and the derision within the play to what I’ll call the ‘non-thespian’ audience is hugely uncomfortable – and rather undermined the beauty and cleverness of the production. A gorgeous piece of work, but one that leaves a rather bitter taste in the mouth.
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