Blonde ambition: Why theatre is a girls’ club

Two new shows may seem poles apart in their outlook, says Paul Taylor, but they both carry important messages about feminism in the 21st century

Wednesday 20 January 2010 01:00 GMT

One of the oddest experiences I have ever had in the theatre was on New Year's Eve 1991. I was sent by this paper to the Drill Hall to cover a (rather spirited and witty) lesbian version of Peter Pan. I had come to believe, such is the inventiveness of memory, that I was the only man at this event, but I have just looked up my review and note that there was a sprinkling of about a dozen males. But I was certainly the only man who was also wielding a notebook and pen. Even the most arrogant of critics can have the occasional panic-attack when he or she questions the sanity, let alone the validity, of the reviewer's way of life. I had one of these with knobs on as 1991 lurched into 1992 and a tough Tinkerbell in Doc Martens was clapped back to a new lease of lesbian life. I had another in 1996 at the Birmingham world premiere of Cliff Richard's musical extravaganza, Heathcliff. I seemed to be the only person in the huge convention centre who was not having a hot flush, Cliff-related or otherwise.

These career peaks popped into my mind last week, which saw the London premiere of shows that are both about women and targeted largely – though very much not exclusively – at women. And the big difference is that I did not feel in the slightest like a gender-miscast outsider or voyeur at either of these marvellous events. On the face of it, however, you might think it absurd attempting, as I am here, to make a non-trivial cultural link between Legally Blonde, which has launched itself at the Savoy Theatre, and Nic Green's Trilogy, which opened to very good reviews and somewhat titillated news coverage at last year's Edinburgh Festival. It moves for performances on Friday and Saturday of this week to the main stage of the Barbican, having just completed a short premiere London run at Battersea Arts Centre.

Are they chalk and cheese? One is a bouncy Broadway musical version of a Hollywood film about a girl who proves that she is rather more than the blonde airhead she is taken to be, while staunchly refusing to rebrand herself or to give up her pink wardrobe and ditzy look. The other is a more "artistic" venture – though often just as funny – that examines the experience of women today in relation to the history of feminism. Bouncing off the famous Town Hall debate in 1971 when Norman Mailer took on a bunch of feminists including Germaine Greer and lost heavily, this inspiring performance-piece is concerned, in part, with the empowerment that comes from shedding shame about the body. Where Elle in Legally Blonde sticks to her guns and her girly outfits, the volunteer women (there will be 200 of them a night at the Barbican) who form the throng in the most newsworthy scene in Nic Green's Trilogy appear as naked as the day they were born and join in a dance of rapturous abandon as though they had at long last been allowed to slip their chains.

As you will have deduced, there is something strangely complementary about these two pieces. I would contend that the West End audiences that are packing out Legally Blonde – a show which is welcoming many well satisfied men, too, but which is taking a lot of business from the girls'-night-out and hen-party trade – would also have a ball (so to speak) at Green's Trilogy and vice versa. What prevents such cross-pollination is merely the difference of perceived brow-level. And it's a false perception, I'd insist. Legally Blonde is a very clever and cheekily knowing piece of work. Take one of its mischievous and curiously penetrating main ideas. The musical version has the sublime notion of sending the heroine's UCLA sorority friends with her to Harvard Law School in the shape of a spectral bubblegum parody of a Greek chorus. It's a hilarious inversion of the Greek tragedy convention whereby the chorus tends to be a bunch of grim, defeatist – and often female – wiseacres. Elle's chums, by contrast, are manically positive cheerleaders.

It's with genuine Greek tragedy, though, that the story of the tricky and conflicted relationship between real-life women and stage representations of women begins. You couldn't have a girls' night out in ancient Greece. Indeed, it is by no means clear to what extent women were even allowed into the theatre during the early summit of dramatic art that is constituted by the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. And yet images of strong women under duress abound in the work particularly of the last of these. If one wanted to be mischievous, one might say that Euripides' great play The Bacchae offers an emblematic instance of the confused, bug-eyed male interloper at an all-female event and a primal example of men's fear of what women get up to when alone in gangs. Disguised as a woman, the young king Pentheus watches the activities of the Bacchantes from a treetop, only to be torn to pieces by the maddened females when they discover him. Of course, the male critic does not necessarily doll up in drag before arriving at one of these shows about women and for women. And however divinely inspired his editors may be, he is not, like Pentheus, in the control of a God. Moreover, it has to be conceded that he usually escapes with his life. All the same, I was put weirdly in mind of Pentheus last week when I read the blog of a critic who wrote none too favourably about the female audience at a preview he had seen of Legally Blonde. There was the same sense of someone male sitting in judgement, and in appalled fascination, while evidently at the mercy of pathological forces over which he had neither control nor real cognisance.

In the theatre of Shakespeare's day, women weren't allowed to act. Over in Spain, which had a comparable burst of theatrical brilliance at the same time, men and women were segregated in the auditorium, a practice that was recently and pointedly revived in a show that came to England under the mind-expanding auspices of BITE (the outfit that has brought Trilogy to the Barbican main stage). In the "found" location of St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, Brazil's Grupo XIX de Teatro performed their show Hysteria, which is set in the kind of 19th-century mental institution where women were incarcerated for the perceived crime of promiscuity or adultery and branded hysterics. The twist was that female audience members were allowed to share the performance space with the actors, while male punters were sectioned off in traditional bank seating.

But then, immemorially, men have been happier with contexts where groups of women are locked away, whether involuntarily or otherwise. There's been no more harrowing scene in recent drama than that in Her Naked Skin which depicted the force-feeding in prison of suffragettes. Intriguingly, this play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz was also the first ever by a woman in the Olivier, the National Theatre's biggest space. It's a typical hop-skip-and-a-jump culturally, that nunneries in drama tend to get quickly robbed of their air of tacit rebuke and challenge by steady conversion into high camp. From the actual nunnery where the real-life Maria von Trapp was a postulant, we move, by predictable steps, to the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical, then to the iconic film and then to the wildly popular Sing-Along-a Sound of Music where the uniform of the nun becomes mere fancy dress worn by punters who fancy turning a karaoke evening into one long camp quotation.

Of course, amongst the gay and straight men in such audiences, there are women, some of whom may well be firmly feminist. In the last 30 or 40 years, in the fluctuations of latter-day feminism, there has been an explosion of shows marketed for groups of women. Such groups are often broadly, if tendentiously, characterised as the "hen night" crowd. Again, one is mildly reminded of The Bacchae because of the recurring dramatic device whereby one sex gains access to the closed-off world of the other via that holy of holies of gender-segregation, the pub lavatory. One thinks of the stage musical of The Full Monty or Willy Russell's Stags and Hens. The Full Monty also examines the relatively new phenomenon of the male stripper. And what a curious phenomenon it is. The received wisdom is that women dress up for other women. Well, how to put this discreetly? Some of these male stripper companies (no names; no pack drill; eventually almost no clothes) demonstrate that there are times when men undress essentially for other men. Such shows pastoralise the erotic; indeed, you could argue that they almost pasteurise it.

There have been West End plays, such as Girls' Night Out, that have humorously tackled this branch of the entertainment industry. There have been plays, such as Women on the Verge of HRT by Marie (Stones in his Pockets) Jones, which have good-humouredly both, ahem, guyed and celebrated the impulse towards girls-together solidarity. In the latter, the women are pilgrims at the shrine of the toweringly anodyne Irish crooner, Daniel O'Donnell. At the moment, you could point to Mamma Mia! and Calendar Girls as pieces that put a wickedly inoffensive smile on the face of middle-of-the-road feminism.

But the simultaneous advent in London of the musical of Legally Blonde and Green's Trilogy prompts the reflection that this pair up the ante. Fascinatingly, they would appear to advocate diametrically opposite action in order to say essentially the same thing: that, as a woman, it's up to you. In Legally Blonde, there's the notion that, if your preferred self-image just happens to coincide with a male fantasy, you would be less than true to yourself if you changed your personal style on that account. Stay put in those clothes. In Trilogy, the rubric is: tear off your glad rags and enter into a debate about why; see off the male gaze by, so to speak, seeing through it, physically and imaginatively. And both shows are wonderfully warm and witty. There's a hilariously revealing moment early on in Legally Blonde when Elle engages with her conceited hunk of a boyfriend in a Lionel Richie/Diana Ross duet, but here male vanity muscles Elle/Diana first to the margins and then right off the edge of the song. And you are offered some delightfully left-field projects to try out by Trilogy. It's suggested, for example, that you find a patriarchal male statue and re-customise it as a camp tribute to one of history's under-celebrated women.

I'd like to offer this further suggestion. There's an institution in central London that is very proud of its theatrical associations and also very jealous of its men-only status to which it is, of course, fully entitled. But it's good for all institutions to be reminded, occasionally, of what they are excluding. So I, for one, would pay through the nose to see Nic Green and her naked women storming the Garrick.

Legally Blonde, Savoy Theatre, London WC2, booking to 23 October (0870 164 8787); Trilogy, Barbican Theatre, London EC2, Fri & Sat (020 7638 8891)

Why I'm a real-life Legal Blonde: By Francesca Steele

There is a pink madness in the auditorium. Pink on the programmes, pink on the usher's tie, an army of tweenagers in platinum blonde wigs buying hot pink t-shirts showing a chihuahua in a fuchsia gilet.

It's the opening weekend of 'Legally Blonde': an adaptation of the 2001 film that has sparked a 'Mamma Mia!'-esque frenzy since it started previewing in December – and elicited begrudgingly rapturous reviews.

Its star is Elle Woods, a beautiful, blonde sorority queen from Malibu (signature colour: pink) who goes all the way to Harvard Law School to win back her boyfriend, Warner, who has dumped her because she is "a Marilyn, not a Jackie". And then Elle discovers she has a knack for the law. Like, omigod! Cue self-discovery, female bonding and a "just be yourself" message that is about as profound as a giant heart-shaped Hallmark card.

It sounds like formulaic tat – and it is, in a sense. The underdog wins the day, girl power rules etc. But since when did the underdog wear Prada? Don't we normally hate the prom queen? Think 'Mean Girls'. The Elle Woods-types aren't our best friends – they're our big-boobed, perfectly-coiffed nightmares.

We're used to seeing our romantic comedy heroines transform, of course. In the late Nineties, Hollywood was full of nerds metamorphosing into goddesses just by taking their glasses off ('She's All That', where jocks beg to date an obese classmate over petite Laney Boggs, who just has her hair in a ponytail, poor girl, is a prime example). But the beauty getting the brains as well? Now that just seems downright unfair.

So how come Elle is so damn likeable? Well, she's silly for one thing. Her dog, the playboy bunny outfit – she never takes herself too seriously. And she's one of the girls, too. Makes friends with her hairdresser, helps her mates get boyfriends, that sort of thing. It's hard to dislike her just because she's attractive. In lesser hands, she'd be annoying, but both the film's Reese Witherspoon and the show's Sheridan Smith avoid making her too effusive.

Elle is also smart beyond her (questionable) aptitude for the law. Research out on Monday from the University of California suggested that "blondes are more warlike than brunettes" – and Elle is certainly no exception. A favourite line from the film is when Vivian, Warner's geeky new girlfriend, invites her to "a costume party". When she arrives dressed as a bunny, with everyone else in regular clothes, Vivian quips that she likes her outfit. Quick as a flash, Elle replies: "Oh thanks, I like yours too. Except when I dress up as a frigid bitch I try not to look so constipated."

'Legally Blonde' turned the high school movie convention on its head, making us love the beauty queen, loathe the nerd, and believe on some level that we can be just like Elle: rich, glam – and a damn good lawyer.

What's more, in Elle's hands the legal profession has a renewed sense of moral purpose (a few bad eggs aside) that, in our recession-fuelled loathing for all things City-related, feels refreshingly idealistic. Lawyers are here to uphold truth and justice after all. Hurrah!

Why the show bombed in the US (it lasted just a year and a half) is a mystery. It seems made to be a musical. What lends itself to impromptu song better than an over-the-top, wronged cheerleader determined to proclaim her plight at every turn?

Sonia Friedman, London's producer, has suggested its budget was too big for its boots (£10m compared with £2.5m this side of the pond). Or perhaps the American dream seems that bit more miraculous to us Brits.

A touch of 'Bridget Jones' empathy, a smidgen of 'Mamma Mia!' merriment and a healthy dose of 'The Hills' glamour: what a combination. I'm off to get my highlights done. And I'm taking 'The Economist' with me.

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