Take three women writers, commission them to write brand new plays and reimaginings of classic works with strong female leads. Add visiting companies attempting something similar and a programme of outreach work that looks at some of the issues all this raises, knit it together as the Citizens Theatre’s 2019 season, and announce the details exclusively in today’s Herald.
This is exactly what Citz artistic director Dominic Hill has done in a programme that puts women’s voices at the theatre’s centre. This is the case from Stef Smith’s time-hopping take on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Zinnie Harris’ new version of John Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, to Frances Poet’s play, Fibres, which looks at the lingering effects of asbestos poisoning in the workplace.
There is also a speedy touring revival of Cora Bissett’s Herald Angel winning autobiographical play, What Girls Are Made of, which stops off at Tramway, where the Citizens company is currently based while its Gorbals-based home undergoes a major rebuild. Given the track records of the writers on board, the season as a whole looks like a major body of work at any level. The decision to present a season made up solely of work by women writers, however, is making quite a statement.
“I think that in a post #MeToo age, women’s work needs to be put centre-stage,” says Smith. “To ignore the events of the last two years would be gross negligence by theatre, and I think it’s theatre’s responsibility and its remit to reflect those events in the work that is being made. It’s been a private conversation forever, to see it come out into the open and become a public one is really important.”
It was Smith’s take on Ibsen’s play, restyled as Nora: A Doll’s House, and which looks set to be directed by Elizabeth Freestone, which accidentally kicked off the thinking behind the season.
“I was very excited about Stef’s ideas of setting the play in three different time zones,” says Hill of Smith’s approach to the play, which features three different Noras in 1918, 1968 and now. “As an organisation which tends to do classic plays in different ways that seemed to fit. It also seems to fit with a lot of the current conversations about women, gender and women’s relationships with men.”
This led to a series of connections with Harris and Poet, both of whom have established relationships with the Citizens. Hill had already directed Harris’ version of August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie. More recently, in co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, Hill oversaw her epic take on Aeschylus’ Greek trilogy, The Oresteia, This Restless House. The play’s revival during the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival saw Harris receive a Herald Angel for a mini-season of her work led by Oresteia: This Restless House.
Coincidentally, Harris has also adapted A Doll’s House in a version set in 1909. Her version of The Duchess [of Malfi] has already been announced as part of co-producers the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh’s programme, and again chimes with current public discussions about women.
“It’s a tale of male rage at female sexual empowerment,” says Harris, “and I wanted to look at how that might sit if seen through contemporary eyes. As well as being about female sexual empowerment, it’s also about what it means to be a man, and asks what is this need for some men to control women.”
As the Citz’s literary associate, Poet too has worked extensively with the theatre. She adapted The Dance of Death, another play by Strindberg, for a studio production directed by Candice Edmunds. Poet also worked as dramaturg on The Macbeths, Hill’s stripped-down take on Shakespeare’s Scottish play that focuses solely on the drama’s central couple. After a run in the Citz’s Circle Studio, it recently went out on tour featuring an all-female cast. Poet also scripted Adam, directed by What Girls Are Made of creator Cora Bissett.
Fibre will tour in a co-production with Stellar Quines directed by Jemima Levick, and touches on a scandal which has caused the death of many men exposed to asbestos dust in the workplace, including in the Glasgow shipyards. What is less well-known is that asbestosis has also affected women.
“Women washing their husbands’ clothes were exposed to the same asbestos,” says Poet, who developed Fibres as part of a new playwriting award from Playwrights Studio Scotland. “The death sentences that brought with it relates to marriage and the things you share.”
In terms of the season in general, Poet observes that “It’s no surprise when you get a slight shift in perspective” when women writers approach subjects such as those in Fibres.
While things have come a long way since the Citizens Theatre’s founder James Bridie rejected Ena Lamont Stewart’s play, Men Should Weep, now regarded as a modern classic, can Harris, Hill, Poet and Smith envisage a time when such a statement as all-women’s season won’t be necessary?
“I think in time we might have all women’s seasons the same as we have all men’s seasons where no-one raises an eyebrow,” says Harris, “but we’re currently living in a moment where the scales have tipped somewhat, and that needs to be addressed.”
As Poet points out, “If you had a season of work by David Greig and Douglas Maxwell, you wouldn’t market it as an all-male season, but neither would you blink at it. I think what’s great about what Dominic is doing is he’s putting women’s voices front and centre, and I think sometimes you need to do that, then in five or ten years’ time when it happens you won’t blink ay that in the same way as you don’t with male writers.”
As she also points out, given their respective track records, “You don’t really need an excuse to programme work by powerhouse writers like Zinnie Harris and Stef Smith.”
Poet is too modest to include herself in that line-up, but, given her own track record, the same applies.
For Hill, “The changes in the world that have happened over the last few years have helped bring these things to our attention, and has stopped us being complacent so we can see the benefits and the excitement in doing something like this. I know at the Lyceum these things are very much a part of their programming, and a 50/50 ratio of male and female artists is very much a thing in other places. Hopefully it’s something we won’t have to have discussions about, but will just happen. At the same time, I think it’s worth celebrating a strong female voice.”
Smith puts it simpler, both in terms of her play and a broader representation of women’s voices onstage.
“I think we’re at a turning point,” she says. “We don’t know what that is yet, but something is happening.”
Tickets for the Citizens Theatre’s 2019 season are on sale from today at www.citz.co.uk. Nora: A Doll’s House, Tramway, Glasgow, March 15-April 6 2019; What Girls Are Made of, Tramway, Glasgow, April 9-13 2019; The Duchess [of Malfi], Tramway, Glasgow, September 4-21 2019; Fibres will tour in September and October 2019.
The Herald, December 4th 2018