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Feminism is currently a hot topic in London theatre. Rapture, Blister, Burn, Blurred Lines and The Mistress Contract were at one point playing simultaneously, and all tackled the complex topic of female agency and women’s position in society. Sarah Sigal’s new play, World Enough and Time (commissioned by all-female company Fluff Productions), explores similar themes through three discrete but loosely connected storylines.
There is the familiar figure of Celia, a high-flying present-day businesswoman who – despite being outwardly successful – in reality is barely able to keep it together; the pressure of “too many balls in the air” means her marriage is in crisis (they are “like ships passing in the night”) and her child has become “difficult to handle”. The second story is that of Pamela, a fashion journalist for The Times sent to interview the infamous Wallis Simpson. Hitherto looked down on by her male colleagues, she slowly begins to realise that she has some value in the male-dominated society of 1936. Finally, there is the Lady Anne, struggling to survive during the English Civil War after the death of her husband. Though she is now the most powerful person in the village, Anne wonders whether the people will “suffer a woman to speak” and whether they will listen to her.
While Pamela’s sections are delivered as a series of monologues (in a standout performance by Rebecca Dunn, who brilliantly captures Pamela’s cut-glass English accent and hilarious over-the-top mannerisms), the various female roles in the two other stories are shared by the same actresses, in a conceit reminiscent of Caryl Churchill’s seminal Top Girls. While it’s frustratingly unclear how Pamela’s story is supposed to fit together with the other two, this exchange of roles encourages us to conclude that not much has changed in the past four hundred years: women are still prisoners of their gender and of society’s expectations. So far, so familiar.
Yet there are a couple of elements that rescue World Enough and Time from mediocrity. In two of the stories, the woman of the household takes in another who is down on her luck: the Lady Anne gives refuge to “mad Joan”, and Celia offers her spare room to Lucy, an old classmate of hers who is unemployed and a recovering alcoholic. Joan, as a “lone woman”, with no husband and no children, no regular work nor place to call home, is suspected of witchcraft. To take her in, therefore, is a dangerous undertaking. Lucy is also single and childless, and thus unable to conform to customary female roles. In her, the outward manifestation of the pressure of being unable to participate in tradition is her descent into alcoholism; arguably another kind of madness.
Pamela also touches upon the theme of childlessness, claiming “I’m really not sure if I’m cut out for pregnancy and child-rearing”. But, though she blusters her way through a list of justifications, referencing how her work keeps her busy, the weight-gain, the morning sickness, the telling pause and catch in her voice betrays that, deep down, she’s not as comfortable with her situation as she makes out. Again, ostracism as a result of childlessness is hardly a new concept, yet the sense of kinship between Joan and Lucy – reinforced by the fact that they are played by the same actress – is powerful and movingly explored here.
That other women perceive childlessness as a threat is just one example of another interesting theme bubbling away beneath the surface: that of female betrayal. All the women in the play betray each other or themselves in some way: Celia, in conforming to society’s expectations, allows herself to be “brainwashed” by a brand consultant into overhauling her image and thus betrays her abilities and intelligence; she also betrays other women by spouting useless clichés in her bestselling book on “personal career empowerment”, urging them to “take control of your destiny” and “learn how to fulfil your potential”. “It’s not about being happy,” she says. “You have to be willing to make sacrifices.” Lady Anne doesn’t know it, but she is about to betrayed by her maidservant, Meg, who lied when she said her son was dead; actually he switched allegiance to Cromwell and is leading his murderous troops to their door. Finally, Pamela willingly and knowingly betrays Wallis Simpson by agreeing to spy on her for MI5, but it’s also clear that she and her sister, Charlotte, have been battling each other since birth: who entered society first, who married first, had children first, who travelled the most. As World Enough and Time makes us mindful of the lack of progress for women, the effect of these betrayals is keenly felt; it’s depressing to think that we have to battle our own sex as well.
That women are still at the mercy of men is not an original idea, yet Sigal dramatizes this cleverly, managing to convey male influence and power without the use of any male characters. Men never appear on stage in World Enough and Time, and yet they are a constant presence. They dominate the women’s conversation; they are the cause of their worries and their fears; their presence (or absence) affects the women’s position in society and their actions. Each of the stories features threatening men who control the action even through their absence: the approaching soldiers; the MI5 officer who recruits Pamela; Celia’s colleagues who are desperate to usurp her; Celia’s husband who cheats on her. That Sigal creates such a vivid picture of these men and their influence through the voices of her female characters well serves her point that not as much progress for women has been made as we might expect, and yet it is achieved in a much more subtle, powerful way than simply rehashing old arguments.
Yet, as I left, I couldn’t shake off the Lady Anne’s words about whether society listens when a woman speaks. It’s wonderful to have new plays written by women and performed by an all-female company – there is much still to be done to redress the gender imbalance in the theatre and the lack of strong roles for women – yet despite some intriguing elements, if Sigal really wants people to sit up and take notice, I can’t help but feel she’s going to have to work harder than this.
World Enough and Time continues at Park Theatre until April 13. Tickets range from £12 to £19.50.