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The Writer: The Push and Pull of Theatre

Sophie Henderson
The Writer by Ella Hickson
A Silo Theatre production
Q Theatre (Rangitira)
Until September 18
Reviewed by Malcolm Calder 

Push or Pull 

It’s about 4 years since Ella Hickson’s new play The Writer was first performed at the Almeida Theatre in London.  At the time it was contentious, eliciting either howls of outrage (because some saw it as attempting to trample over and challenge the theatrical forms and practices of the very sector of which it is a part) or delighted screams of excitement (because others saw it as enabling explosive new opportunities to further develop the creative role of women). 

Four years later, in Tamaki Makaura, the same issues remain.  But a lot has happened in those four years.  Covid has scythed its way through the sector wreaking havoc on everyone concerned, contemporary feminism has become a very complex thing indeed, Gender issues have become both established and acknowledged and everyone has had four years of further reflection. 

In The Writer the unnamed key character duels verbally and perhaps physically too with her protagonist, a Director.  It is about aspiration and actualisation, control and domination and it is about women and sexual stereotypes. 

At one level it is binary, at another it is truly complex. In Sophie Roberts outstanding Silo Theatre production The Writer opens with a searingly intense confrontation on an empty stage between the protagonist, a passionate and angry 26-year-old who despises the conventions of male-dominated modern theatre and believes her writing to be a tool that can ‘overturn the patriarchy’.   

Her somewhat passive antagonist, who might be a director, is very definitely the voice of the establishment and governed by a cautious pragmatism that’s more concerned with keeping the theatre afloat than breaking new dramatic ground. 

The two standpoints are diametric opposites and doomed to never meet.  Theatre-as-a-sacred-space with a political purpose is confronted only with a mixture of amused condescension and a vain attempt to co-opt the fire in someone else’s belly.  It’s just not going to happen – which is a credit to how brilliantly Ash Williams and Matt Whelan make this scene leap off the page. What it does do though, is provide a context for much of the ensuing or prior action conducted in a series of semi dream/realty sequences between the Writer and the Director. 

These move backward in time (could be forward but that’s not important) to a rehearsal setting on-stage complete with questions from the audience, to before and after versions of an apartment, to an idyllic chalk circle. Initially the push-pull is between the Writer and her Needy Boyfriend.  He sees her as good for sex, her passion as an income-generating opportunity (‘movie scripts pay better’) and insecurely resents not being the centre of her world.

He is dismissively consigned to the past-his-use-by-date pile. Spoiler Alert – as the publicity says, things do explode and walls do collapse in this play, revealing the flimsiness behind the physical reality of what we see.  Then the Writer jumbles him up with the Director (Steven Lovatt) – suggesting but never telling and ever the affable master of the laid back manner and the laconic response – yet with a biting rebuff always up his sleeve.   

The Writer moves on to join a tribe of women living a new world order that’s bereft of men. This generates both an income stream and a relationship with New Girlfriend living in an apartment that mirrors her former relationship with Needy Boyfriend.  It wrestles with the increasing complexity of contemporary feminism. Spoiler Alert – yes, there is a baby in this play or are there two?  And what physical reality do they reflect? The Writer closes with an anecdote about Pablo Picasso up a ladder painting Guernica whilst his two lovers have a fist fight.  

Picasso, so the legend goes, obliviously continues painting.  Clearly male artists have been granted the privilege of pursuing their art untrammelled by domesticity in a way female artists haven’t – and still aren’t.  But it’s not that simple either and nothing is neatly resolved by the end of the play. Sophie Roberts has cast outstandingly.  Ash Williams and Matt Whelan command the stage particularly in that opening scene.  Sophie Henderson endows the Writer with passion, intelligence and commitment that is the soul of the play and, while Lovatt’s Editor has few lines, his underplayed contrapuntal presence is the perfect foil. 

Did I like The Writer?  Wrong question.  For me, this play tends to trip over its own binary standpoint.  It is about something far bigger and far more complex, and raises more questions than it answers.  The more I think about it, the more questions it raises. What The Writer does do is provide a riveting two hours.  But make sure you’ve got someone to discuss it with later because there’s lots to talk about.  After all, that’s what makes good theatre good. 

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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