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Why would men not try to understand what women want? That is the question Ella Hickson sets out to answer in her latest play The Writer. The story begins with an impromptu conversation between a theatre director (Samuel West) standing alone on his stage after the show is over and a twenty-four-year-old student (Lara Rossi) who runs back into the empty room to retrieve her forgotten backpack. First, he admonishes her: “You’re not supposed to be here.” Then he asks what she thought of his play.
There follows a brilliant exchange between the condescending but impressed (or is it aroused?) West and the angry and articulate, not to mention powerless, Rossi. Yes, she says things like “dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy; however, she also admits to coming back to this theatre, alone, week after week because she needs to “heal” and she is hoping to see something “real”, something that supports her desire for “the world to change shape”.
Rossi is poignant in her faith in art. She makes a fresh plea for what theatre could be and The Writer is worth seeing if only for the opening scene. West, like us, is seduced. He offers her to write a play for “his” theatre. She reminds him they’ve been there before. It turns out they’ve met a few years back. She was even younger and he made her believe in her talent and in his integrity and then tried to kiss her.
That’s it. The scene is cut. We move then to a discussion about that “reading”. #MeToo is another obstacle on the path. The play is about desire. Romola Garai is the Writer. That’s what she desires: to feel, to create, to be heard. We meet her at the beginning of her career, almost stuttering with insecurity as she tries to defend her work before the Director (Michael Gould), who flippantly tells her what he wants her to do if she wants her play produced. She is nobody. Why would he try to understand what she is trying to say?
Ella Hickson is just thirty-three years old but is already considered a major playwright. Her first play, Eight, produced while she was still a student at the University of Edinburgh, won a Fringe First Award, the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award and the National Student Drama Festival Emerging Artists Award in 2008. The Writer is her second play to premiere at the Almeida after Oil in 2016.
This two-hour show is structured as a mosaic of scenes that transform before our eyes, with Anna Fleischle’s multiple sets being built and dismantled as part of the action. Blanche McIntyre’s tight and focused direction keeps our eyes on the prize: the making of a writer. Every scene marks a gain in confidence that Garai acquires with great pain: it is on her face, in her body, the price of her desire.
Men try to derail her. They know if not what she wants, then definitely what she needs. Her Boyfriend (West, this time as an ordinary guy) hands her a beautiful live baby. Garai admires the child but keeps her head: “This baby belongs to the woman in the wings!” No metaphor here: a woman with a black T-shirt and headphones does indeed appear from the side to take back her baby. The stage is later covered in hundreds of white lines as Garai goes on a mystical trip and is finally able to connect with herself. It is lovely.
But this is not an ending, she is told by the Director. Not in the commercial sense.
“Money is safety,” Garai is told. “Courage is safety,” a now confident Garai responds.
Yet watching the last scene, it feels like the Director won. There is food and sex and luxury. Whereas the audience laughed and scoffed at the sounds of Garai and West having intercourse on the plastic-covered sofa he’d just bought, the theatre went quiet as Garai’s partner, Lara Rossi’s Student, goes down on her and she comes on the designer sofa. There is clearly a hierarchy in this couple although there are no men to be seen. It is not a question of gender. It is about what happens to human beings when they acquire power and Garai is no exception. It’s disappointing. If this is where the journey ends, we have the answer to the original question. Men do understand what women want. They just don’t like it.
The Writer continues at the Almeida Theatre until May 26 2018.