Theatre: A woman's work...

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Are theatre critics sexist? A new book of interviews with women playwrights thinks so. "Paranoid bunk," replies The Guardian. Oh really?

Liberals? I can't stand them. Give me a cast-iron bigot any time. Take women. Outside the ranks of dyed-in-the-wool chauvinists, or the swelling ranks of new lads (ie embryonic old gits), no-one will come out and admit they might be sexist. Hmm. If everyone thinks women are so great, how come we still need feminism?

Contrary to popular myth, theatre is a minefield of sexual inequality. Yes, there are female directors, but you wouldn't need to hire the Palladium to gather them together. They'd fit into one of the dressing-rooms. Being a woman playwright is no barrel of laughs, either. According to Rage and Reason, a fascinating collection of interviews, recent research shows that only 20 per cent of productions are plays by women and that figure drops to 14 per cent when the artistic director is male.

But hey, that's nothing to do with sexism: men running theatres and men commissioning plays, is it? Not according to The Guardian's Michael Billington, it isn't. Picking up the claim that women's work rarely gets beyond studio spaces (notably at the Royal Court), he equivocates, arguing that the achievement of the Daldry years has been the upgrading of the Theatre Upstairs. True, but plays in that space have much shorter runs and are seen by a fraction of a mainstage audience (it seats less than 70).

He also refutes charges of laddish writing, arguing that several of these plays are "criticisms rather than celebrations of hermetic, solitary, sexually inadequate male groups". Oh, that's all right then. Perish the thought that men could write about such things and include women.

Claire Dowie dares to suggest that the critical fraternity actually want male writers to succeed, "whereas with women it's, `let's see you fail'." "Paranoid bunk," says Billington. I, too, do not believe that we critics consciously march into plays determined to prove male superiority, but that is not how sexism works. It's far more insidious. Few actually wish to kill the career of any woman writer, but patronising observations about "domesticity" or "women's themes" lead to death by a thousand (paper) cuts.

Women are routinely patronised and upbraided for failing to create rounded male characters. Like the old socialist argument about feminism being a diversion from the class struggle, all-female plays are seen as provincial, secondary to plays about "bigger issues". All-male plays are seen as universal and either nobody notices the few or no women's roles, or they are applauded for conjuring up important masculine arenas.

Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, now regularly cited as one of the century's great plays, was strongly criticised by some on its first appearance. Three years later, Alan Ayckbourn wrote the excellent Woman in Mind. Reviewing it, Billington declared him our "leading feminist dramatist". An over-enthusiastic oversight, maybe, but I rest my case.

`Rage and Reason', is published by Methuen at pounds 9.99.

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