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Books Campaigning and performing

LYNNE WALSH deplores how laudable commitments to battling discrimination have displaced the fight against women's sex-based oppression

Feminist Theatre Then & Now
Edited by Cheryl Robson 
Aurora Metro, £16.99

 

MEMORIES of the heady days of women’s theatre in the ’70s and ’80s recall the provocative and edgy nature of the genre.

The clues are in the names of some of the troupes: Sensible Footwear, Cunning Stunts, Scarlet Harlots, Monstrous Regiment, Beryl and the Perils, Theatre of Black Women, Clean Break, Sadista Sisters, Lip Service, and The Chuffinelles. The latter included the late and truly great Linda Smith.

They were heady days. A night out at London’s Drill Hall (now the Rada Studios) promised cabaret and slapstick, sketches, mime, all-singing, all-dancing, and significantly, all-women.

Venues appealed especially to lesbians and bi women. Taking up space was important for audiences, as well as for those on stage. 

The personal was always the political, as this book reminds us. Campaigning was inextricably linked with entertainment, with benefits for rape crisis centres, against the homophobic Clause 28, and visceral pieces which highlighted the evils of domestic violence, misogyny and racism. 

Writer Rukhsana Ahmad’s first full-length play in 1991, Song for a Sanctuary, is emblematic of the best of feminist theatre. It responded to the murder of Balwant Kaur at Brent Asian Women’s Refuge in 1985. Her husband and his two accomplices killed her in front of her three young daughters.

Ahmad says of feminism: “I acquired my insights through my lived reality. It’s the prism through which I see and interpret the world. It’s the motivation that drives my choice of subject and genre. For a woman, and a brown one at that, who believes in justice, it’s the only perspective that makes sense.”

Anna Herrmann of Clean Break, performing in women’s prisons as well as mainstream theatres for two decades, writes of the importance of women-only spaces, “away from societal expectations and organisational structures that I found limiting — a space where I felt safe away from the male gaze.”

April de Angelis’s work includes My Brilliant Friend, her two-part staging of Elena Ferrantes’ novels, in which women and girls survive patriarchy and thrive. De Angelis reflects on the earlier years of feminist theatre. “At the time, apart from Caryl Churchill, there were NO women playwrights, just a lot of men called David, who ruled our stages.”

Moving through the decades, a fundamental change occurs, as Catrina McHugh, co-founder of Open Clasp, answers the question: what does feminist mean to you?

“A feminist is a person who fights for the rights of all women, inclusive of trans women. Our most recent production, Mycelial, which was co-created with sex worker activists around the world, is inclusive of all women — lesbians, trans women of colour, Maori, non-binary, neurodiverse people, those who are disabled, trans women and Irish.”

Laudable commitments to battling discrimination displace the fight against women’s sex-based oppression, our birthright sold for a mess of pottage. 

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