FringeReview UK 2018
Eighteen months after Ella Hickson’s Oil appeared at the Almeida, The Writer is directed there by Blanche McIntyre. Anna Flieschle’s endless parade of false windows and conscious sets actors sometimes peer round with Richard Howell’s lighting and Zack Hein’s video. Emma Laxton’s sound is particularly telling.
The Almeida has excitingly staged Ella Hickson’s The Writer just eighteen months after her last play, Oil, struck a fantastical seam – chronological picaresque as well as a marvellous sounding.
This latest work’s more Pirandellian, full of collapsing sets and expectations in Anna Flieschle’s endless parade of false windows and conscious sets actors sometimes peer round with Richard Howell’s lighting and Zack Hein’s video. Each becomes more present as we start from a bare bricks and progress through picture-book sets, coruscating lighting displays and a plush West End parody of the picture book, replete with nonchalantly dropped drapes (raising a laugh) and midnight blues with metropolitan glitter out of a window. It’s all managed in exo-skeletal fashion by a team of women stage managers, sometimes with a recumbent man waited on hand and footstool. Starting with a coup, The Writer settles in the last of its five (in reality six) tableaux. Sharply directed by Blanche McIntyre two hours race by at the same time as seeming to touch a wondrously still centre where Emma Laxton’s sound is particularly telling. And there’s a surprise in the second part.
A young woman (Lara Rossi) wanders onto the Almeida’s bare post-show stage where Samuel West who declares he’s a patron asks her why she’s doing so. It only gradually emerges they’ve met before. Rossi lets a stream of invective against privileged theatre, something Hickson knows implicates herself. So when Rossi nails her credo ‘to dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy’ and gets a cheer. Hickson and Rossi’s character know of course this is the nearing laughter of the kind of people who laughed at Posh most were those portrayed in it. The same was true of Serious Money. That West’s lives with Posh author Laura Wade and had a role in the film version is a piquant joke only underlying the privilege Hickson delights in skirting to annoy the literal-minded. Now West offers Rossi the chance to write something ‘zeigeisty’. He remembers nothing but Rossi reminds him.
Crucially Rossi adds. ‘I want the world to change shape’ to which the riposte is ‘I’m not sure theatre can do that.’ ’So where am I meant take that impulse?’ It’s a question Hickson subtly answers toads the end of Part Three – an imagined journey. ‘We are making a space conceived entirely by the architecture of our wanting.’ And the whole of that section justifies a whiff of grandeur in that, whilst the next two sections subject it to an inquisition as The Director laves his imprint on what follows.
We’re undercut immediately to a post-show where Romola Garai looking at this point distinctly like Hickson herself defends her subsequent material against what everyone agrees is a superb opening. Actors Rossi and West defend her, but mentor director Michael Gould wags his finger. There’s some reveals here you’ll need to see for yourself, and we chunter into the second scene with Garai and West as Writer and Boyfriend as the playhouse set is erected around them.
By this point the men seems set up as aunt Sallys, patriarchy and its unbroken patronage enacting everything from keeping your coat on during sex to make it seem more adult, to how despite being the one with vast contracts the Writer doesn’t want, being also expected to buckle down to what’s expected. Garai’s incandescent here, blasting West’s complaisance and worse with ‘It’s physically painful, a lot of the time… and I go to bed after and pretend that I’m sleeping…, I want awe. I feel like I need blood. …And anything les than that makes me feel desperate. It makes me feel like I want to die.’ there might seem indulgence for the writer too, but Hickson’s too deft to let that settle, as she moves through the narrative third part through the fourth with a far more conciliatory scene with Gould as Director – still patriarchal but allowed to score a few points, and into a final disturbance.
If the blazing Rossi standing in for Garai as it were embodies the purity of a twenty-four year old’s uncompromised, uncompromising vision, Hickson unfolds the compromise with herself the writer makes. It’s an essay in self-criticism. If the tender erotic journey of Garai and Rossi in a fabulous Lakeland is finally spiked by a man with binoculars – always the male gaze objectifying the greatest intimacy – it’s intact in itself. Garai’s more personal confrontations with her mentor undermines The Writer’s own refusals. The final scene’s ambivalent indeed. Garai and Rossi, now glamorized are no longer inhabiting a space free from men. This is after all staged. The sexual positions are now as it were inverted, The writer herself might contemplate herself in a dynamic altered by who, exactly?
Garai’s performance fires all around it with depth and embodies the broken arc of a persona whose power shrinks, shrouds itself then blasts with unaccountable eloquence. It’s a wholly justifiable and necessary self-exploration. ‘Hamlet?’ she ripostes at one point. Rossi’s blaze matches Garai’s in a necessarily smaller role. West and Gould persuade us of what Hickson’s up against, West capable of stunning outbursts and malice, Gould of a feline suavity masquerading as a slightly oleaginous paternalism.
This is necessary, exciting, playful, and still unsettling, not just because of what it asks but the manner of narration. It’s also seminal.