I don’t know if audience reactions are contagious but it certainly felt like that tonight. This shall teach me to believe 5-star reviews. Seriously, what the hell did I just watch? I feel completely fooled here, and I’m not the only one. Sitting in the dark at the packed out Almeida Theatre, I spent most of my evening with my mouth open gesturing ‘eh?’ That’s exactly how I felt, and at least 20 people around me upstairs in the circle.
The Writer, written by Ella Hickson and directed by Blanche McIntyre, is complicated. I get that. Its complexity, multiple scene changes and lapse between a play-within-a-play terrain can throw off the audience a little, but, even still, somehow it holds your gaze. (Sorry but this isn’t a spoiler-free write-up, so move off if you genuinely want to see this play because what I have to say may encourage you to return your ticket pronto if you’ve got a ticket already.)
Samuel West and Lara Rossi perform first as stage director and audience/student. Their characters have a confrontation about theatre, sex, gender, inequality, capitalism… the works. Rossi’s persona is in her twenties and West, the director, is 10-20 years older and married. It turns out that the director’s words of encouragement to the twenty-something, for a career in theatre writing, is compromised when he makes a pass at her. That was when she was 18 years old, though. He doesn’t remember it happening exactly, but as soon as he does his misogyny kicks in.
Then, all the sudden, we are thrown into a Q & A. The real artistic director of the theatre, played by Michael Gould, and the playwright, performed by Romola Garai, appear on stage with the two actors. Garai’s writer, however, seems uncertain and unsure of her own play. She appeared to have no conceivable idea of why or what she wrote the play for. That’s how I felt, anyway. The mansplaining from the Gould’s character was palpable. The patronising tone from his arrogant and patriarchal figure irked the audience, and so it should. You can almost hear hissing from the stalls. But this was good. I actually liked that part. Yet what I didn’t understand were the scenes after, such as the dry humping, fake orgasms, the screaming, the pasta on the poor Mac Air, the cute baby brought on stage, and the trance-like poetry segment with cosmic lighting. Respect goes to Zakk Hein for those illuminating digital projections, nonetheless.
The play then moved onto another shouting match with Gould’s director where Garai’s character claims she doesn’t feel safe. However, the director, at this point, looked confused and so did the audience. She said some fair points including, ‘don’t you know how hard it is to write a play’? The director gave the air that the only thing that truly mattered in theatre was whether it would sell out a show and put bums in seats – not pioneering, breakthrough ideas. He tries his best to tell her, without upsetting her, that her play wasn’t sufficient enough to present on stage.
To end the play, we were magically teleported to some high-end, skyscraper apartment. The writer is no longer in a heterosexual relationship, with a boyfriend who was easily satisfied with nuts and couch potato behaviour. She is now in what seems like a euphoric lesbian relationship, yet things dramatically change when a dildo comes into the equation. It seems that from that scenario alone, the writer realises she doesn’t like being a ‘bottom’, but rather prefers to be on ‘top’. The dialogue immediately hones in on power and domination, but this is my problem – there was no connection – whatsoever – to link these complex and much- needed conversations together. These big ideas seem scattered and not concentrated. I found it difficult to follow what I was seeing.
I cannot criticise the actors, though, as they were all impressive. They portrayed characters with their own individual insecurities who questioned their place in society and position in intimate relationships. The set designs, by Anna Fleischle, were also cutting edge. The onstage scene changes with backstage staff members getting involved, manually moving things around, brought the theatre and writer relation closer to the audience. The lights, by Richard Howell, and stunning digital projections were spot on. But, honestly, this wasn’t a fun watch, at all.
I tried my hardest to pay attention to the dialogue, which was engrossing at times, but I just couldn’t place the words I heard to what was actually happening on stage. I often pitied Garai’s character, but that wasn’t enough – this wasn’t the play I had intended on seeing. I was expecting something that was revolutionary, which would deal with pertinent subjects about women, desire, #MeToo, liberty and diverse voices in theatre, but, unfortunately, I got the entire opposite.
As I walked out of the Almeida, a young lady said to her friend ‘er, I would never recommend this to anyone’ while a maturer lady said to her partner, ‘that was just pretentious’. I was so stunned and confused at what I saw that I almost dropped my phone when the show ended. I was stuck in a play of confusion and gender non-equality. No, no, no… this is not what I was expecting at all.
The Writer is showing at the Almeida Theatre until 26 May. Click here to go their website and purchase tickets here.
(I paid for my ticket to see this show.)