First Drafts is the Yard’s festival of new work. The pieces I saw spanned different levels of draftyness from first readings to the early stages of a production. As in the best-curated festivals, conversations were started and taken up by different pieces. The two nights I attended, I came away reinvigorated about what theatre is and what it can do, and impatient to see these works developed. Here are some of my thoughts.
Human Suit by Sarah Kosar, dir. Deirdre McLaughlin
One of the things I loved about First Drafts was how it pushed the boundaries of the forms in which developing and new work could be presented. Human Suit was a rehearsed reading, but not the kind actors and audience yawn and shuffle through. The stage directions were delivered with such aplomb that there almost seemed to be another character in the play – Malvina’s unruly body, which farts at inappropriate moments, detracting from her corporate poise. There are some playwrights whose voice permeates their stage directions (Sarah Kane and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins spring to mind), and Sarah Kosar is one of them. Her stage directions brilliant capture the absurdity and corporeality of her play’s world and are so funny I’m quite sad that they will not be read out in a production.
Human Suit is a feminist play without being predictable, not least in representing a woman having bodily functions onstage. Malvina, the CEO of a tech start up, has a tumour growing in her mouth and uncontrollable burping. She ignores it, as she worries that if she takes any time away from work she will be replaced, a fear that proves true. Malvina feels betrayed and embarrassed by her body and its functions, which could be a metaphor for how so often women are reduced to their bodies – there’s a running joke about male characters putting everything down to Malvina being on her period. Human Suit also brilliantly satirises how the catch phrases of pop feminism can be co-opted by men; Malvina’s husband, trying to persuade her to have a baby with him, asks her, ‘Don’t you want to start having it all?’
No spoilers, but there’s a fantastically absurd twist. It involves cacti.
Cunt by Katherine Manners, dir. Holly Race Roughan
Cunt by Katherine Manners puts the psychodrama of female sexuality centre stage. Evelyn goes to the doctor to find out why she doesn’t enjoy sex anymore. She’s hoping to be cured in time for her husband’s birthday, to surprise him. A female stand up comedian is doing a set about her sexual encounters with sex and sexism: her first orgasm, climbing a rope in gym class; the pressure to be fingered in secondary school; the white van man who shouted obscene comments at her whenever he saw her. They are the same woman.
The play starts in more or less the real world. Evelyn as a character expresses common and relatable anxieties about sex – reluctance to talk about it, fear of being laughed at, wondering whether she’s ‘normal’. However, the prurience of the doctor/ sex therapist takes the play into a heightened dramatic realm. As in some kind of medieval psychomachia, Evelyn is sent from increasingly misogynistic doctor to doctor to find a ‘cure’. There is the Freudian doctor, who believes Evelyn is suffering from penis envy. There is the American minister, nostrils flaring with misogyny, who declares ‘The vagina is shame, pain and death’. The peak of the first act (only one act was read due to time constraints) is a Crucible-esque scene in which Evelyn is put on trial for denying her husband sex. She is branded a witch and her male judges appear to get off on demonising her sexuality.
In a production, I’d like to see the tone clarified. The misogyny of the judges is so unrelenting and extreme that sometimes it almost does not come across as satire, as in such lines as, ‘The clitoris is to blame for the failure of society and the breakdown of moral order.’ The burden is put on Evelyn to defend herself and her sexuality as something normal and OK, which could compromise the nuance of her conflicting feelings about sex. Still, this might be addressed in the second half of the play.
Girl Meets Boy, adapted by Debbie Hannan and the company
Girl Meets Boy was a joy to watch. More crafted than a first draft, the rough and ready quality of the showing was a perfect choice for this adaptation of Ali Smith’s quirky novel. I loved the innovative use of projections and the hand made garlands that are unfurled across the stage at the end.
It is so affirming to see a positive representation of a lesbian/ queer relationship onstage. Girl Meets Boy also has the distinction of including the most inventive lesbian sex scene I’ve seen onstage (not that there have been many – but this is way better than the slightly awkward aerial acrobatics in Lyndsey Turner’s Tipping the Velvet at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2015). Robin and Anthea shyly put on deer antlers and move around each other, their antlers never quite touching, as if they’re in an ancient fertility ritual. Laughing, they throw cloths in the air and chase each other. It looks like fun.
Throughout, Girl Meets Boy reflects the novel’s faith in the power of words to change the world. Its theatre is playful and transformative, as ‘Things can always be different’. It can hold multiple realities in tension with each other. You don’t have to be one or the other. You can be both, boy and girl, at once. You can be a girl who likes girls. You can be who you are or who you want to be.