Last year, the Tricycle Theatre scored a notable hit with The Great Game, a cycle of short plays about Afghanistan. Women, Power and Politics follows the same model, exploring the titular subject from many angles through nine specially commissioned short plays, written exclusively by female dramatists and interspersed with verbatim vignettes derived from interviews with contemporary politicians.
It's a characteristically bold and imaginative piece of programming by artistic director, Nicolas Kent; the entire enterprise is directed, in a heroic feat of stamina and tenacity, by Indhu Rubasingham, and it's performed by a winningly vivid and versatile company of 12 actors. It's also well timed, coming after a general election that produced a parliament where women still make up only 22 per cent of MPs. The plays are categorised into those dealing with the historical background ("Then") and those which follow the issues through to the present day ("Now").
The result brims with good-humoured vigour but the pieces themselves are decidedly uneven. The Great Game sustained its length by taking you into largely uncharted territory. The plays here occasionally show the strain of trying to put a fresh spin on familiar material. Some feel like 10-minute sketches over-extended to half an hour; others struggle to cram a full-length drama into the confines of a brief one-acter. The piece that fits its space best is Zinnie Harris's The Panel, a mordantly funny look at the pompous, variously prejudiced deliberations of an all-male selection committee who are tasked to choose a manager from a women-only short list. One likely candidate is quietly sidelined when it emerges that she once threatened to sue because she thought she'd been passed over for promotion.
Are women-only shortlists the way forward or an insult to women? Are women less good than men at solidarity? Should the interests of party and family necessarily come before those of political progress for women in particular? Does groomed girl-power collude with sexual exploitation? These issues are debated in plays as diverse as Joy Wilkinson's Acting Leader, an uneasily jokey-sad run-down of Margaret Beckett's defeat by Tony Blair in the 1994 leadership election, and Bloody Wimmin, a shrewd and witty piece by Lucy Kirkwood that revealingly cuts between the unkempt, defiantly consciousness-raising protesters at Greenham Common and a slick, media-friendly, gender-inclusive present-day climate-change campaign.
Two of the most striking pieces dramatise conflict between a pair of extremely powerful women. Moira Buffini's irreverently comic Handbagged charts the fraught relations of the Queen and Mrs Thatcher, as the monarch takes up what, to the PM, is a wet and socialist attitude to such questions as sanctions against South Africa and the miners' strike. In Sam Holcroft's bracingly bizarre Pink, a female Prime Minister whose husband has been caught buying sex toys from a porn website tries to blackmail its self-made magnate. For a woman, we gather, the political is more prone to be dogged by the personal.
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