THE BLOG

Hello Sweet Art: Women's Stories and Class War

17/09/2015 17:32 BST | Updated 17/09/2016 10:12 BST
Helen Maybanks

I think one day in the future someone is going to write a blog about an interpretative dance piece that contains what all of our faces looked like when we watched the news this week. But until that time comes, these are my cultural shenanigans from the past seven days.

Lela & Co, Royal Court Upstairs

What it is: A disturbing, disorientating exploration of human trafficking, that brings suffering to your back yard before throwing you headfirst across the border and into the war zone.

I was thinking the other day about giving up on this whole feminism thing. I was yammering on about it in the pub. "I'm bored of trying to prove that these problems are real," I said. "I'm exhausted by men saying that women don't experience the things that we experience." (I am a Friday night riot and people are queuing up to hang out with me.)

And then I watched Lela & Co at the Royal Court. And that's it. Sorry. I'm not shutting up. This is a play about a horrible, awful thing: the sex trafficking of Lela, a fifteen year old girl. But it's about a beautiful thing too: it's Lela overcoming her silencing by men, and telling her own story. And her speaking of that story is as profoundly moving and empowering as it is completely and utterly devastating, and it's why women should never be made to feel like hysterical anti-christs every time they talk about the damage that the patriarchy does.

Lela is directly descended from Samuel Beckett's Winnie in Happy Days - she wears a smile like a uniform. She's repeatedly raped by countless different men, but she exudes cheery stoicism. She is interrupted by men who want to drown her out, and who constantly correct and doubt her version of events. But in telling her story, Lela disrupts the narrative of the passive female victim, always having things done to them and never able to fight back. Words are her weapons, truth and revelation is her retribution. It made me feel a weird mixture of distraughtness and elation. I get that sometimes when theatre is amazing, it's like carsickness.

It's one of the best plays of the year. Cordelia Lynn's writing has the fire and fearlessness of the early work of Caryl Churchill. Jude Christian's direction quite literally plunges its audience into darkness in a way that makes you wish you weren't there, directly allowing you to feel the tiniest glimmer of Lela's pain and discomfort, but also shielding Lela from our gaze, giving her a dignity she's never been allowed before. And Katie West and David Mumeni provide their characters with rich inner lives and histories, that are brimming with both heart and intelligence. I'm going to carry on talking about what happens to women and I am also going to now tell you what to do. You should go and see it. You MUST go and see it.

Future Conditional, Old Vic

What it is: A contrived exploration of education and social mobility, with a bit of guitar playing here and there

I mean sure, if you're into the fetishisation of ethnic minorities, offensive stereotypes of women and the working class, browbeating about social inequality yet concluding that Oxbridge is the answer to all of society's ills, and Rob Brydon talking to invisible children, definitely go and see it. I don't like that stuff though.

The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present, by Michael Billington

What it is: A list, compiled by Guardian's chief theatre critic of 40+ years, of the plays that he thinks are absolute bangers

Michael Billington has made a big list of the greatest plays. It's all fraught with controversy. Who has the right to do such a thing? Well, a man who has over 40 years of experiencing reviewing plays is probably quite a good candidate. But some people aren't so sure. And besides, what's the criteria for the list? Is it just things that Billers really likes, or plays that are objectively seen as being exemplary pieces of drama (and what would those things be anyway?)

It's unsurprising that Billington's list in overwhelmingly manly, and a bit stuffy and staid. I'd excise all David Hares and Tom Stoppards immediately, but that's because I don't think hollow, posh ciphers having an intellectual argument is a fun thing to watch for two hours. I've DONE university. He's also done this thing where he's written dialogues with an imaginary female critic, to 'challenge himself through dialectical argument'. I just want to say now, not necessary Michael. I am a real breathing young woman and you can chat to me about plays any time.

On a serious note, what is fascinating about Billington's preferences is his high respect for the text. This is something that we share. He is a focused and generous champion for the written word, who can give dozens of equally convincing readings of the same play, and is always ready to meet the political questions they ask head on. He knows what he's doing. But every so often you want him to just mix it up a bit and shove in a wildcard like Starlight Express or something.

An Inspector Calls, BBC One

What it is: An adaptation of J.B. Priestley's legendary play, in which an upper class family discover their complicity in a working class woman's suicide

It's surely no coincidence that 90 minutes of socialist drama found its way on to the BBC the day after Corbyn was elected leader. I bet Jez rang up David Thewlis and Ken Stott and made them film the whole thing in 24 hours and told the BBC there was no way they were having anything on about cakes or antiques and everyone had to obey him because he is the leader now.

And I'd just like to say: great choice. Could J.B. Priestley's words feel more pertinent in 2015?

We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.

You also forget the capacity that An Inspector Calls has to be extremely creepy. This adaptation captures that eerie moody perfectly. After I watched it I felt more scared about going to bed with the light off than I did after watching The Ring, and I was pretty scared then because I'd had email from AnnaMorgan@hotmail.com saying I was going to die in seven days. At the time I didn't realize ghosts don't have email.

Lela & Co. is at the Royal Court Upstairs until 3 October

101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present is published by Faber & Faber

Future Conditional is at the Old Vic until 3 October

An Inspector Calls is on BBC iPlayer here