Review: Bechdel Testing Life

Bechdel Testing Life

Bunker Theatre, 22nd-23rd July 2017

Bechdel Testing Life emerges from Bechdel Theatre’s wider campaign to use the Bechdel Test to improve and highlight gender representation in theatre. The ongoing project asks members of the public to send in recordings of themselves having a conversation that passes the Bechdel Test (‘Are there two female characters? Do they talk to each other? About something other than a man?’). The recordings are given to playwrights to generate new plays, which are, Producer & Bechdel Theatre founder, Beth Watson emphasised, not verbatim renderings of the conversation, but inspired by some part of them.

The first instalment of short plays at the Bunker Theatre (I say first because I really hope there will be more) brought home to me how refreshing and unusual it is to see women-centred narratives in theatre. Still more unusual is the all female-cast and creative team. Pushing the men out of the foreground created space for a host of other stories, notably sisterly relationships and lesbian and bisexual characters.

In Binnacle by Rabiah Hussain, directed by Lotte Ruth Johnson, sisters Amy and Alex have just returned from their mother’s funeral to the canal boat on which they lived as children. The dialogue between them captured the unique ability sisters have to pry into each other’s insecurities and exploit them, although the reflective piece ends on a more hopeful note. There was also lovely use of recorded material to conjure memories.

Slow Ripening Fruit by Lizzie Milton and directed by Nastazja Somers is about female friendship: Annie, Jess and Mo were best friends when they were 14; now, less comfortable with each other, they meet up to celebrate Annie’s 29th birthday. Annie’s monologue at the end was powerful, suggesting that she feels there are things that just can’t be told to her friends. However, I wasn’t entirely sure about the play’s stance on feminism. Mo refers to herself as a ‘dyke’, calls Jess ‘strong for a girl’ and criticises her for being ‘fat’; at 29, they have more tact, and overpraise Jess for going to the gym. Maybe it was intended to reveal how implicated girls and women are in gendered language and sexist attitudes, but the critique was not clear.

Friends, Football Friends by Guleraana Mir and directed by Madelaine Moore was the funniest of the plays, exploring casual racism at the setting of a school fete. Two mothers discuss how Alison, hopeful PTA candidate, bustling around the stage in a Union Jack apron, has posted (what we assume to be) a racial slur in the group Whatsapp group. The play tackles wider themes of race and multiculturalism, without compromising its comedy.

In Alginate by Isley Lynn, directed by Hannah Hauer-King, a woman takes off her top and another woman appraises her breasts. It emerges gradually that the woman has asked her sister to sculpt her breasts before she has a mastectomy. What I loved about the piece, along with the lyrical dialogue, was that the nudity was not sexualised. They were just breasts which, as the play progressed, took on more significance as breasts that were about to be cut off. Women’s bodies are so rarely allowed to be just bodies onstage and Lynn’s piece achieved this.

The evening as a whole made me reflect upon what moments or conversations are deemed significant enough for drama. In each of these plays, we see snatches of women’s lives, heightened moments of the ordinary. I’m very curious about what the original conversations were and how they have been transformed by the playwrights. Many of these plays would have scope to be longer and I hope they are developed. More please!

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