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Linda Griffiths - Age of Arousal

A Victorian costume drama with a radical feminist bent might not sound
the most entertaining of prospects. As has already been proven at
Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, however, Stellar Quines’ production
of Canadian writer Linda Griffiths’ Age of Arousal, which opens at
Glasgow’s Tron Theatre before touring the country, defies convention at
every level.

‘Wildly inspired,’ as Griffiths would have it in her programme notes,
by George Gissing’s progressive novel, The Odd Women, Age of Arousal is
a playfully serious and utterly theatrical look at female liberation
during as time when women outnumbered men three to one. Those unlucky
enough not to marry, it seems, were marginalised by a society that had
yet to view women as equals. Based around a secretarial school which
hopes to liberate its pupils via the typewriter, the play focuses on
the different solutions chosen by three sisters who enroll in the
school run by a precursor to the Suffragettes and her younger lover. As
already indicated, in a work that frequently finds its characters
voicing their own sub-text or else has multiple voices collapsing into
one another like counterpointing little symphonies, even the posh
frocks are worn differently.

“I really feel this is the design I’ve been wanting over twelve
productions,” Griffiths beams while on a whistlestop visit to Edinburgh
to see the play’s opening. Griffiths is referring to the show’s
off-kilter couture created in part by design students from Edinburgh
College of Art. “I’ve never gotten anyone who was prepared to go this
far, and this is how far it needs to go.”

The question of how far can you go is central to Age of Arousal, which
came about after Griffiths found a dog-eared copy of The Odd Women,
George Gissing’s novel that inspired it, in the dollar-bin of a
second-hand book-store.

“I turned it over, and it on the back it said ‘Five Victorian
Spinsters’, and I thought, oh, that’s juicy. I’m so interested in the
idea of spinsters, and I wanted to feel I had the freedom to be wildly
inspired by it, but not do any traditional adaptation. So it’s a
collaboration between me and George Gissing. Now, he’s dead, but if
anyone is still doing any of my plays in a hundred years time, I will
let them mess with them. But the tone of the play is completely
different from Gissing’s. it’s playful, dangerous and there’s that bomb
inside it. In Gissing’s book there’s the bomb, but there is no soufflé
around it and no sense of humour. No-one goes to Berlin to smoke and
wear trousers in the book as they do in my play, which is meant to show
the restriction of the age, but in a way so we also see the freedom
that was building. I’ve a natural rebellious temperament, so I was
never going to write a conventional costume drama, and I was always
more interested in what was underneath than what was on top.”

This is done in Age of Arousal primarily through something Griffiths
calls Thought-Speak, in which each character expresses their inner
yearnings in a gush of words outwith the everyday politesse they
communicate with face to face. As a technique, Thought-Speak is more
integrated than an interior monologue or a Shakespearian aside, with
the effect of all the characters emotional irrationalle getting the
better of them and tearing up their insides beyond their external
control.

Such none-naturalistic interventions stem back to Griffiths’ early
years as a performer with Theatre Passe Muraille, creating work
collectively out of improvisations. Even then, however, Griffiths stood
out in an already kooky crew.

“I don’t like boring an audience,” she says. “In the improv work I was
always bringing in strange things, ghosts and another level of reality.
I like to work in terms of a microcosm with relationships, a macrocosm
in terms of political realities, and then another level of the magic
that theatre can involve.”

Age of Arousal is the second of Griffiths’ British Trilogy of plays,
inspired in part by her Rotherham-born father. The first, Wallis
Simpson aka The Duchess: an unabashed epic, looks at the American
divorcee whose marriage to King Edward caused him to abdicate. The
third, The Last Dog of War, is a solo piece performed by Griffiths over
the last four years, which is inspired by a trip she took with her
father as he embarked on a reunion with his old RAF squadron.

“There’s always an element in my work of fantasy, or what I call
fabulism,” Griffiths twinkles, “so in Wallis Simpson, her jewels are
personified, and they become characters in the play. There will be that
uber level that the play goes to. There’ll be no Thought-Speak, but
there is this other thing that is reached for. So while the three plays
are different, I guess they’re about me wrestling with my heritage, and
bringing my own perspective to it.”

For all Griffiths’ wildness, she isn’t deconstructing her sources in
the sort of freeform post-modernism that New York experimental veterans
The Wooster Group might indulge in. Rather, by remaining faithful to
her inspirations, she reimagines them afresh so something newly
invigorated comes out the other side.

As an actress, Griffiths became widely known in Canada for Maggie and
Pierre, in which she played former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre
Trudeau, his wife Margaret and a journalist called Henry. Griffiths
also won awards for her performance in John Sayles’ film, Liana. Yet
for every commercial success, Griffiths is just as adept at ducking out
of view, too weird for the mainstream but not odd enough to be
considered avant-garde. Falling between two stalls like this is
something Griffiths seems to delight in.

The connection with Stellar Quines came about through Griffiths’
Canadian agent, who had already connected with Romanes, who they flew
over to Toronto to see the play’s second production. Romanes liked the
play, but felt there was more to it beyond what she saw in Toronto and
another production in Montreal. The end result, as Edinburgh audiences
have already seen is a provocative delight.

“The theatricality is in the text,” she says, “and then you can take it
farther, like with the dance in the middle of the play. The text lends
itself to that, to doing something performative.”

As for the declaration by one of the characters that all gender issues
will be resolved within thirty years, such apparent naiveté may be easy
to laugh at from a twenty-first century distance, but it’s something to
believe in.

“The Victorians were optimists,” Griffiths points out. “They believed
you could figure it out, and that’s part of the irony of the play, that
these people believe that in thirty years all difficulties with gender
will be erased. But it’s also part of the joy of the play, that they’re
fighting for this thing. I think of it as a bon-bon with a bomb inside.
It’s very audience friendly and it’s fun, but every once in a while it
comes right into the gut.

“The play is never according to the proper polemic a feminist point of
view. So if women are supposed to be strong, when are we silly? When do
we luxuriate in the weakness, which is also part of the fun of being a
human being? So I never take the polemic straight. It’s always bent.
It’s always twisted, just like it is in real life.”

Age of Arousal, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, March 15-26, then tours.
www.tron.co.uk
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, March 15th 2011

ends

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