Oh, how could you treat a poor Maiden so?

RIGHT OF REPLY The Guardian critic found himself 'hopelessly lost in a dense Scots myth'; the Financial Times identified 'a feminist turn of mind' and didn't like it. Rona Munro defends her play, The Maiden Stone
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In the middle of last year I delivered a commission, written mainly in the Doric Scots of my birthplace, to a London theatre. Instead of quietly pointing me towards King's Cross Station, Hampstead Theatre welcomed me in and proceeded to realise every possibility: mountains and castles on stage, hordes of children transformed into animals, blood, snow and bawdy gags. We have a cast that can drag through births, deaths and real, raw sex and make the best kind of painful comedy out of it all. It's a big play.

In Scotland, my experience has been that a bad review bruises the ego but not the box-office. As the reviews for The Maiden Stone came in and the theatre emptied I was left to reflect with growing disquiet on the influence of a narrow group of people on the kind of theatre I might see in my new home.

I expected racism from some reviewers, I found plenty of it: demands for subtitles, condescending parodies of the dialect. The majority of Londoners, who patently do not share the accent and culture of our media masters, have less problem with The Maiden Stone. Given the narrow monopoly of language on our stages, screens and in print, most of us have to make a similar leap daily.

There was however, something more alarming revealed by the reviews. With one exception, the women reviewers loved the play and roared their approval. With one exception, the male reviewers, with varying degrees of malice or honest incomprehension, threw up their pens and cried : "What the **** was that about!" And there it was, in print, implied and explicit: this was that most feared and dreariest of nights out, a "women's" play.

Is it a "women's" play if the female characters carry more of the story? Is it a women's play if it addresses issues of gender and sexuality in their most powerful forms? Is it a women's play if the women are rolling about laughing and crying while the men sit scratching their heads? To suggest anything of the kind would be a sexist slur on the many, many men, both in the company and in the audiences who have no problem dancing along with our story, simply sharing a human experience.

A reviewer, of course, never provides you with subjective context; you must simply trust the objectivity of their viewpoint and their integrity. I would love to speculate mischievously as to which of them had never recovered from being bottle-fed, or which of them had been intimidated by a Aberdeen supporter in some dark bar at the Edinburgh Festival, their judgment forever biased against women and Scots. It might also be significant that this play has won a major award, one not in the gift of the critics.

However, having established my bias, I also want to tell you this. I think this is a play that is understood by the heart even when its every detail may escape the intellect. I think it reveals each member of the audience, female or male, in relation to the feminine in themselves. It's like the emperor's new clothes in reverse. What you see, what you feel, will tell something about who you are.

n 'The Maiden Stone' is at the Hampstead Theatre (box-office: 0171-722 9301) to 20 May