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The Evolving Roles of Women In London Theatre

The Evolving Roles of Women In London Theatre

The Evolving Roles of Women In London Theatre cover photo on Stagedoor
For International Women's Day, Lyn Gardner looks at how far women have come in London Theatre, the roles they presently fill, and the future positions they should be considered for.

Ava Wong Davies’ Graceland is at the Royal Court, Lulu Raczka’s Women, Beware the Devil is at the Almeida, and Matilda Feyisayo Ibini’s Sleepova is at the Bush. Ruby Thomas’ Linck & Mülhahn finished its run at Hampstead last weekend, and You Bury Me—Ahlam’s winner of The Women’s Prize for Playwriting—opens at the Orange Tree at the end of the month. On the face of it, as International Women’s Day rolls around once more, it looks as if theatre is far closer to gender parity than it has been over the last quarter century, when on occasion Agatha Christie has been the only woman with a play on the London stage. Not that Agatha is doing too badly. The world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap, may be moving towards the end of its West End run, but Witness for the Prosecution at County Hall has just been extended again.

But while women are far better represented on London’s stages than they have been over the last decade, when there have been times when Agatha was still the only woman playwright in the West End, this International Women’s Day is a good time to reflect on the precarity of their foothold. They are not consistently represented, making women playwrights and other creatives (including directors and designers of all kinds) more vulnerable to the external pressures facing theatre.

Two-thirds of women working in theatre considered leaving theatre during the pandemic and many did. With the current difficulties experienced by theatre, including squeezed funding, rising costs, and audiences who are also affected by the cost of living crisis, it leaves women—just as the pandemic did—often more exposed than their male counterparts. The Arts Council’s Let’s Create strategy is admirable in many ways, but one of its flaws is its failure to acknowledge the considerable gender inequalities in the arts, including lower pay. Why does this matter? Because when times get tough, those with the least secure toehold often drop off the ladder. If you have access to less of the cake, the crumbs you can scrabble are crucial to your survival within the theatre industry, and it is the crumbs that disappear off the table first in squeezed times.

We have women in power in the theatre industry, including significant producers such as West End impresarios Sonia Friedman and Nica Burns, the latter behind the West End’s latest playhouse, @sohoplace. There is a younger generation too, including Francesca Moody, whose Berlusconi opens at Southwark Playhouse later this month, and Ellie Keel, founder of The Women’s Prize for Playwriting, both of whom are adept at working across the subsidised and commercial sectors. That is going to be ever more important.

From Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall. Photo by Ellie Kurttz.

But women still seem to be sidelined from leading roles in running theatres. We have amazing female leaders, from Lynette Linton at the Bush to Indhu Rabasingham at the Tricycle, from Rachel O’Riordan at the Lyric to Lisa Spirling at Theatre 503. But most London theatres are still run by men, and whoever runs a theatre has control over the purse strings and how budgets are spent.

It is telling that Michelle Terry’s time at the Globe has resulted in many opportunities for female creatives, including directors and writers. It’s not hard: you just keep gender inequality in your head all the time and act to make sure that you are giving women a chance to access opportunities. After all, there is no shortage of women working in theatre, but the problem comes when they are denied access beyond certain levels. Always the assistant director, never the mainstage director. Or pushed towards working in education, or given that commission to adapt a novel but never one to write an original play. There are many ways that theatre, sometimes unconsciously, keeps women in their place.

It's good to see Tamara Harvey getting a shot at the RSC with co-artistic director Daniel Evans, but with Rufus Norris surely getting towards the end of his time at the National, this International Women’s Day is a good time to reflect on what a boost it would be if a woman got the top job there.

After all, there are plenty of contenders, including Indu Rubasingham and Lynette Linton, who have both directed at the National, Erica Whyman (just leaving her post as acting artistic director at the RSC) and Vicky Featherstone (departing the Royal Court), who have both had experience running national organisations—Featherstone was the highly effective founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland. The top job at the NT going to a woman would send a sure sign that women in theatre are genuinely valued. At the moment, too many feel they have to keep proving their worth over and over, not just on International Women’s Day but for the other 364 days too.

Cover image of the cast in Matilda Feyisayo Ibini’s Sleepova is at the Bush Theatre. Photo by Shaun Lee.

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Lyn Gardner

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