In its most electrifying scenes, Ella Hickson’s new play argues that art – all art, though specifically art made by women – is corrupted by the distorting prism of patriarchal capitalism.
The Writer, the protagonist of Hickson’s ‘The Writer’ is a boiling talent cooled and diminished via a filtration system of needy partners, letchy directors and commercially minded tinkering.
In its meta-y tangle of half-reflective scenes, the play opens on a play, wherein Lara Rossi’s ‘fictional’ version of The Writer (who is played by Romola Garai throughout the rest of the play) tears a strip off a smug director (Samuel West) for the hypocrisy of his art and the casual damage he has previously inflicted upon her career and confidence.
She also has some choice words for male critics – at the very least it’s hard not to feel self-conscious about passing comment on ‘The Writer’ while also being a man.
Nevertheless, he persisted.
There are bits of Blanche McIntyre’s playfully deadpan production so devastatingly perceptive that I almost felt my flesh being ripped off my bones to expose the gruesome true self that my flabby shell of flesh is fraudulently concealing.
The scenes in which Rossi or Garai’s embodiments of The Writer confront her director (West or Michael Gould) have a ferocious sense of intent that strongly suggested (to me) a rebuke of the Almeida’s own Rupert Goold. Until this current season he has been accused of running a building that gives few opportunities to female creatives, while it’s easy to imagine there are scenes that seem to pass comment on the reasons for the lengthy gestation process for Hickson’s previous Almeida play, ‘Oil’.
And just as painfully good is the sequence in which The Writer (Garai) is stuck diplomatically trying to negotiate her way around her low-achieving husband’s ego after she makes a career decision that disappoints him. You can feel the weight of the emotional labour from the stalls.
Then there are other bits in which The Writer attempts to pen a world outside of patriarchal, dramaturgical or capitalist expectations. It’s difficult to exactly know what to make of these sections – they feel so wilfully trying that one might interpret them as provocatively suggesting that art needs the patriarchy. But I suppose I would think that.
Ultimately ‘The Writer’ feels very punk rock, a thrillingly uninhibited rally against the establishment. It is open to numerous criticisms – it is white feminism writ large; it arguably wouldn’t work outside of the cosy Almeida; it is surely somewhat self-indulgent – but, crucially, it doesn’t give a shit.
And if punk is a performative thing, McIntyre has a great cast with an excellent frontwoman in the always superb Garai, who runs the emotional gamut from nervous rage to weary tolerance to boiling fury.
I’m not sure you can change the establishment from within the establishment – staging a show (arguably) critical of the Almeida from within the Almeida essentially makes the Almeida look good. But if ‘The Writer’ probably won’t burn this building down, it might just inspire whoever does.