GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI SEES THE FIRST TWO PLAYS IN THE RSC’S “MIDSUMMER MISCHIEF” SERIES: PROGRAMME A
THE ANT AND THE CICADA – Timberlake Wertenbaker
Zoe is an artist, living in debt in the old family house in Greece; Selina is her sister, who turns up with a practical plan to save her, which Zoe will hate. It may have taken a few gauche strokes to establish this scenario: defensive liberalism, infuriatingly airy-fairy Art versus depressingly selfish Economy – but the final scene, in which we too are immersed in Zoe’s performance art, brings all the agony, frustration and complexity of the Greek crisis to life. Erica Whyman’s sensitive direction allows this brilliant play to speak clearly. Wertenbaker dares difficult questions, encapsulated in Zoe’s furious speech on the vicious nature of “god the market… Your irrational and capricious god”, and involves us (quite literally) in Greece’s uncertain future. Whether you believe Elgin saved or stole his Marbles, there is no doubting the rueful humour of the observation that “the Parthenon… can’t fit into the British Museum”: we are now beyond the old solutions. Using intimate family faultlines, strong-armed semi-legal negotiation and the louring shadow of Fascism to create an explosive, conflicting atmosphere of fulfilment and betrayal, Wertenbaker’s clear-eyed view of how Greece came into this mess, and her anxiety at what its resolution will be, is fascinating and moving.
REVOLT. SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN. – Alice Birch
Like a shot of philosophical adrenalin delivered to the arm, Alice Birch’s series of short scenes provoke us to be honest about the failures of feminism to date. Porn is an ongoing testament to that failure. Associated by certain lingual tics (potatoes, bluebells) but otherwise not following any deliberate plot pattern, Birch’s scenes distort social paradigms, often to comic effect, to soften us up for the philosophical punch to close, while minimalist set design by Madeleine Girling and Whyman’s strong sense of movement bring dazzling energy to the whole.
Birch opens playfully as a woman criticises, objects to and rearranges the words in which a man tells her how badly, and how, he wants to sleep with her, eventually overcoming and emasculating him by her own verbal and sexual power. Brilliantly acted with taste and without blushing by Mimi Ndiweni, it made me proud to be female. Next, a disastrous proposal scene deconstructs the ideas of love and marriage, romantically and practically. Birch moves on to comment on work-life balance, female body anxiety, the world food chain and carbon footprint guilt, children, motherhood and abandonment – all evoked in scenes busy with tension, drama and surrealist bite. The actors constantly impress with their range and versatility: Ndiweni just steals the edge over her companions for sheer presence, magnetism and skill, though Scarlett Brookes also astounds us with her distinctive portrayals of so many different characters.
The word “wastelands” is one of the play’s final thoughts: “wastelands had grown where we thought we were building mountains”. Though her play ends on a vibratingly misandric note (a final deliberate distortion), the subtlety, breadth and richness of Birch’s vision reminded me that, like T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, despair can breed luscious creativity. If every girl and boy in every school in Britain could see this play, we might just possibly grow up in a more equal world.
– CHARLOTTE VALORI
At the RSC Courtyard Theatre until 12 July: 0844 800 1110
At the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs 15-17 July: 020 7565 5000