Ella Hickson’s witty, profound and passionate play raises many questions. It says things that I still need to hear, even as a white, middle-class and well-educated woman in the 21st century in a developed country. It is (primarily, though not wholly) a play about women not being heard or listened to by men, or, more bitterly still, finally being heard, and then corrected. About ten minutes into the play, I stopped taking notes, and just watched and listened, hungrily. In it, the men’s speech shifts from the easily amused and amusing, to blustering – only when pushed, though; until you are defending yourself, as the titular Writer almost always is, you don’t need to raise your voice.
In an early scene, Romola Garai, on superb form here as the Writer, hunches in her chair as she takes questions from the floor during a Q&A session. Tripping over her words, she defers continuously and apologetically to the director of the play that, after all, she has written. The questions pass over her and on to the men, who answer them on her behalf with easy charm or abrupt indifference. But we’ve just become an audience twice over, as we watch a scene from her unpublished play, and we know that this hesitation doesn’t truly belong to her. It’s entirely created by her setting.
In the play’s best scene, the Writer comes home to her boyfriend, who has read her contract offer of £40,000 for the film rights to her play. Fearing her play’s butchery, she hasn’t had the chance to tell him she doesn’t want it, but he’s read her contract, assumed yes, and bought them a sofa on the strength of it. He can’t understand why she’s not interested. Despite their real and touching love for each other, the celebration veers into argument: his job is dull, £40,000 is his year’s salary (but she’s already paid his rent three times this year). She describes in wittily macabre detail the process of abandoning your work to a set of producers with all eyes on a quick sell. Impasse. Next time we meet her, she’s been somehow propelled out of a London taxi to inhabit another world with Semele, and has now returned to earth to live with her girlfriend in a chic flat somewhere in the City. So she’s taken the contract after all. What changed? Has she listened to the Director telling her that money, not courage, is safety? If so, at least it’s bought her a room of her own.
‘The Writer’ is a timely and gripping play, despite the intricate inversions and twists, and the volume of ideas and observation it squashes in. It has much to say on how equality is withheld by a system so ingrained we’ve let it in to our sitting rooms, and has a finely tuned ear for language and the tics of life in modern London. The staging, an exercise in meta confusion, continually offers the idea of constructs (Garai watches the walls of her flat being assembled around her before walking round it to come back in). But the characters are all totally recognizable, a prism through which Hickson refracts urgent questions at the audience. We need these questions: women and men are both being cheated of their freedom until the playing field is really and truly levelled. But, until that moment, we have this biting, funny, desperate play.