For The Love of Theatre – How the First Black Othello Changed My Life

Producer and Editor Titilola Dawudu talks about the moment that inspired her love of theatre, and led to the creation of the all-new monologue anthology Hear Me Now: Audition Monologues for Actors of Colour.

If I would choose one play that changed my life, I would have to say it was Othello.

Titilola Dawudu

Titilola Dawudu, Editor and Co-Creator of Hear Me Now

Classic Shakespearean jealousy, love and tragedy at its best. More significantly for a 15 year old black girl from south London, it was the first play I ever saw in the theatre.

As a bookish, often shy child who frequently wrote their own stories, my English teacher, Mr Martin, would give me books to read that weren’t on the curriculum. As such, I seemed a natural choice when a few of the people in my class were assigned mentors. That informal mentoring and insightful treatment was perhaps what led to me meeting Lucy Neal, the co-founder of the London international festival of theatre (LiFT). During one of our mentoring sessions, she told me that she wanted to take me to the theatre, and when the time came my parents dresses me up in a puffy dressed (having never visited the theatre either, they didn’t know what to expect) and Lucy picked me up and whisked me away in her shiny car.

What most stayed with me from that night was the fact that there was a tall, black man playing Othello, and there was a red handkerchief; I was aware that I was surrounded by older white people and that I was in this enormous theatre, and I

David Harewood Othello

David Harewood was the first black actor to play Othello, in the National Theatre’s 1997 production.

remember feeling mesmerised by this red handkerchief. Everything was dark and this piece of red material would float across the stage. Coincidentally, we had just been reading Othello in school and I couldn’t believe that the words I had read were now literally coming to life right in front of me.

Lucy Neal taking me to see this play would be the direct reason for why I am even writing this blog today. I did not want to become an actor, but I knew all the times I would write stories in my bedroom, was because of that very moment watching Othello at the National Theatre. I wanted to be a writer.

Years later I thought about the significance of David Harewood playing Othello, and what that did for a young black girl who wanted to write. I grew up in a tiny, all-white, village called St Neots, though I was born in Ibadan in Nigeria, and these two circumstances often had me confused about my identity. But not while I was writing. And not after I had seen David Harewood on this stage in my favourite Shakespeare play.

It was last month when, after 22 years, I saw Lucy Neal again. She had seen an article that I was featured in from the Guardian, where, I spoke about my love of mentoring young women and noted that Lucy was my first and my most important mentor. It was a full circle moment for me, for when we met; in my place of work, Ovalhouse theatre, where I now mentor young girls, whom I often take to see their own very first plays.

Hear me Now

Hear Me Now: Audition Monologues for Actors of Colour edited by Titilola Dawudu is Out Now at OberonBooks.com

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Chronicling a Century of Queer Performance: A Q&A With Serena Grasso


The Oberon Book of Queer Monologues
, released last Thursday, is an astonishing new collection which includes more than 40 pieces from a range of LGBTQ+ theatre. What began as a volume intended for auditioning actors, quickly became the first anthology of its kind, chronicling over one hundred years of Queer and Trans performance, including previously unknown and never-before-published works.

Here, Oberon’s Publishing Assistant Serena Grasso, gives us an insight into the process of helping to curate this incredible new book.

Serena

 

What were yours and Scottee’s aims for this book when you started putting it together?
I came on board the project a few months after its inception. Oberon has a long list of monologue volumes for practitioners, such as Monologues for Black Actors, so a queer collection had been in the pipeline for quite a while. Once the book started to come together it became clear that we were no longer making just an audition toolkit, but

Queer Monos Hand Snap

“We made a conscious choice to include voices usually excluded from the ‘gay canon’.”

creating a record of queer theatre history that we hadn’t seen before.  We made the conscious choice to especially include voices that are usually excluded from the “gay canon” – POC, women, anything beyond the “G” in the acronym, and every intersection of those. We debated whether to only include work by playwrights who were queer, but that got trickier and trickier as we moved further back in the timeline – playwrights who may have not have been out for safety, or who did not ascribe to gender and sexuality the same connotations we do now. So we got rid of that – but it was a very interesting discussion to have.

 

Talk us through the decisions the team made about which significant queer plays to include in the collection, and why.
There was a lot of back and forth on some of the better-known pieces, all boiling down to: is this necessary? Do we need to include this uber-popular, easily accessible play? We tried to create thought-provoking parallels with the pieces we chose – ie. Angels in America comes directly before Paul Boakye’s Boy with Beer, and both were written around the same time. We thought having them side by side offered an interesting look at differing experiences of the AIDS crisis in a (mostly white) New York setting versus that of a black British community. Neil Bartlett is another established writer whose work we were really keen to have – deeply political and in line with the themes of the collection.

Could you elaborate on the same process, but for less well-known plays?
This is really where our core aim came into play – spotlighting voices that have been side-lined within the queer community itself. It might sound obvious, but the venn diagram of “lesser-known plays” and “marginalised writers” is often a full circle – hence why we focused on rediscovering these works and bringing them to a new audience. To get back to the Boy with Beer example: why has this play, that was written at the same time as Angels in America and shares with it a lot of key concerns, gone mostly under the radar for over twenty years? We put the anthology together by answering a lot of these questions.

Some of the monologues are from spoken word pieces or are short monologues that haven’t been taken from plays. Could you take us through the reasons for going further afield than published plays or plays that have been produced?
Spoken word is where some of the most exciting stuff is happening! I think traditional definitions of “theatre” and “playwriting” have often been hostile to outsider voices, and queer performance has had to really f*ck with conventional theatre form to assert our own voices. Think of cabaret and drag, for example, not just spoken word – queer performance blends it all together. It would have been a huge disservice to our history to exclude them in favour of “plays”, in the more traditional sense of the word.

How did you find/discover particularly obscure/erased playwrights?
Scottee and I have both been immersed in queer performance culture for years (Scottee more than I, to be fair!), so it was interesting to see how much of what we both knew was oral history. I’d love for someone to create a free online directory at some point. Other than that, it was a lot of Googling and brainstorming.  It wasn’t so much finding out about plays that was difficult, but accessing the works. A lot of them were never published or have gone out of print. There were many sessions we spent scouring the British Library!

How hard was it to find queer playwrights or significant queer characters from early on the 20th century?
Very hard! Again, you’re treading a really tricky line when you try to assign modern-day definitions of sexuality to early 20th century playwrights, or assume that closet or censorship weren’t factors back then. We went looking for mostly queer characters for the first half of the twentieth century – and even then, it was rare that those plays made

Serena and Scottee

“Scottee and I have both been immersed in Queer performance for years.”

it into print. Plays like God of Vengeance and The Drag were even pulled from the stage, their writers and producers indicted on obscenity charges. Or you had the opposite – someone like Angelina Weld Grimké, who was the openly queer female figurehead of the Harlem Renaissance, but never wrote a play on the subject. There was probably a wealth of material that never got recorded, or got sanitised away – it’s sad and infuriating, but I think that’s why collections like this matter.

 

Were there any playwrights/monologues Scottee wanted from the start?
Scottee brought so many cabaret, drag, radical queer artists to the table – it was so exciting to work with the ideas he had, to give a fully-fledged idea of how queer performance has evolved and what it looks like now. He was very keen from the get-go to have artists like David Hoyle, Jonny Woo, Penny Arcade, Split Britches, Mem Morrison, Travis Alabanza, and a few others that we sadly didn’t get permission for!

Which is your favourite monologue and why?
Sharon Bridgforth’s the bull-jean stories. I’d never come across it before working on Queer Monologues and it’s now one of my favourite books of all time. Just some really evocative writing about an African-American butch woman – like, so good.

Which new play/writer/monologue is your favourite and why?
Jen Silverman, Mojisola Adebayo and Travis Alabanza are some of my favourite contemporaries. I think they embody that playfulness and humanity about queer performance so well.

Are there any plays that you wish you could have included?
Yes, there were a few cases where we could not get permission to use the material, couldn’t find a manuscript, or couldn’t get a hold of the writer in time. When I look at the collection knowing what happened behind the scenes I can spot a couple of glaring omissions – but we did all we could. Fingers crossed for Vol 2. PS. If anyone knows where to find Wallace Thurman’s Harlem, please let me know!

Queer Monologues WITH QUOTE

 

The Oberon Book of Queer Monologues edited by Scottee is Out Now at Oberon Books priced £12.99.

Simon Callow on Legendary Playwright Peggy Ramsay

Peggy Ramsay (1908-1991) was the foremost play agent of her time. Her list of clients shows her to have been at the centre of British playwriting for several generations from the late 1950s on.
To her remarkable array of clients, her letter writing was notorious, marked by searing candour, both a wondrous motivation and an unforgiving scrutiny to be feared. To mark the release of Peggy to her Playwrights, the new book compiling a selection of Peggy Ramsay’s most notable exchanges, Simon Callow looks back on his friendship with one of the most influential agents in theatre history.

Simon Callow

As one descends into the vale of years, family, lovers, friends, colleagues inevitably and increasingly fall by the wayside. This is a source of real distress, which becomes worse rather than better as time goes on. As the sonneteer says,

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s  dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:

Among the most precious friends thus hidden are my grandmother, Vera; the playwright Simon Gray; the actor Angus MacKay; and the play agent Peggy Ramsay. There are many, many others, of course, but when I lost those four I felt with each one that something of myself had gone, an important  part of me that would never return. And so it has proved. Sometimes, without warning, any one of them will suddenly fill my mind and the terrible frustration of not being able to pick up the conversation where we left off gives me pangs of real physical pain. It passes, but, like the poet, I find myself drowning an eye. What’s to be done? Nothing, really; c’est la vie.  One can at least write something, try to catch them on the page, keep them alive, somehow, convey to others who never knew them what it was like to be around them.

I have, indeed, written about all of them: most of all about Peggy, who is the heroine of my memoir Love is Where It Falls. Our relationship was particularly intense, a sort of love affair, unconsummated, physically, but profoundly fulfilled in many other ways. She was 70 when I met  her – I was 30 – and within days and for the rest of her life we were as passionately close as any two people could be without actually being lovers. Knowing her was an intoxication: her beauty, her vitality, her mercurial impulses, her wisdom, her poetry, her pain. I wrote my first book as a result of her connecting me with my first publisher; at a stroke she gave me a career as a writer. By the time my second book appeared, she was in decline, though still devoured it as avidly as ever. But her input was merely that of an interested reader. The truth is that she was essentially a play agent, and there was little for her to do for me, professionally speaking.

I knew many of her clients, of course, had acted in or directed many of their plays – Bond, Hare, Hampton, Ayckbourn, Russell – and they had told me of her astonishing interventions on their behalf, her uncommon proactivity with managers, directors, critics. They spoke of (and sometimes showed me) astonishing letters, inspiring, berating, mocking, consoling. I knew already how exacting her standards were, both literary and personal: she demanded that her writers judge themselves against the most exalted models, that they live and write from a position of profound engagement with their own humanity. She was also a demon negotiator, seeing the bargaining process as great sport. I wrote a little about all of this in my book; Colin Chambers, in the authorised biography, covered it in much greater depth. But if you wanted to know about Peggy as an agent, as she understood the job, you really needed to have read her letters. Very shortly after her death, before I had ever thought of writing anything about her myself, Willy Russell suggested to me that someone should put together a selection of her letters. The idea – so obvious, and so obviously right – stayed with me, but for all the usual reasons I did nothing about it.

Meanwhile, Laurence Harbottle and I created the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, using Peggy’s fortune to benefit playwrights – with the additional purpose of keeping her name and what it stood for alive.  In this I think it has succeeded; over the 25 years of its existence, innumerable writers and theatres have been helped – in some cases, saved – by infusions of dosh in times of need or distress. But I have often wondered whether the recipients of the awards have any real idea of the woman after which they are named. Colin’s book and mine are a help, I think, in giving an impression of what she was like, but nothing we wrote can fully convey her unique approach to encouraging writing for the theatre, and how far beyond conventional agenting it went. Only her letters can really do that. And so I started, some years ago, to mount a campaign to get then into print, and thence into the hands of writers and managers and directors, and, yes, agents. Finally, after overcoming doubts, resistance, even, from various quarters – who, they not unreasonably asked, would want to buy a book of letters by a long-dead agent? – we have a splendid and representative selection of her correspondence, edited by Colin, which not only brings Peggy back to life, they give a glimpse of what being an agent could possibly be. Of course the world of the theatre has changed. The world has changed. Forces of nature like Peggy are no longer easily accommodated. Nor were they then, truth to tell: her passion, rooted in a hard-won sense of the meaning of life and the purpose of art, often prevailed, but she fought many desperate battles before it did. And when it did, her extraordinary charm made her victories endurable to the vanquished. All this is in Peggy to her Playwrights, to which I can now at last turn when I want to have a conversation with her. They ring out across the years; Peggy lives.

Peggy to her Playwrights edited by Colin Chambers and introduced by Simon Callow is out now at Oberon Books.

PEGGY COVER

On Wednesday 30 May, join Simon Callow, Christopher Hampton, Maureen Lipman and Colin Chambers at the National Theatre to discuss and read some of Peggy Ramsay’s letters to her remarkable array of clients, taken from Peggy to her Playwrights.
Tickets can be booked here.

Oberon’s First Ever Digital Only Collection: Continued

Roy SmilesRoy Smiles is a comic playwright occasional actor. On 24th April 2018 we published Oberon Books’ first ever digital only collection, featuring ten of Roy Smiles’ never-before-seen plays. Following on from his blog piece last week, Roy continues to reveal the inspiration behind these fantastic pieces of work.

Roy Smiles: The inspiration for my play Working for Mammon came about whilst I was on a train with my son during the London Riots in 2012. The train had come to a halt as Hackney was involved in a riot below us. I was so afraid for my son I sent him home to his mother in Kent that very night. The shame of being afraid for my son in the city of my birth led me to write a very angry play on the subject. The teacher featured in the play is as close as I have ever come to writing autobiographically.

Reading Gaol allowed me to pay tribute to two of my play-writing heroes: Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. The plays on Wilde are legion but I don’t believe there is Reading Gaolone set in Reading Prison or with Shaw. If I’ve got anywhere near their style I am most grateful to the writing gods. I found them both astonishing talents. Wilde went to jail because he did not believe he was guilty of any crime and British society punished him for it with hard labour that broke his health. He was a hero then and is a hero now.

The VIP takes me back to damaged genius. Richard Burton meant a lot to my family as a child; they were working class Geordies, and Burton was seen as one of their own, as, despite being Welsh, he’d come from the same background. His brothers, like my grandfather, went down the mines. His marriage to Elizabeth Taylor made him half of the most famous couple on the planet. But all the riches in the world could not temper his sense that he had betrayed his own talent. Nor could he forget the family he had left behind or the mother he never knew. The cameo from Peter O’Toole, by the by, is one of my most joyful pieces of writing in my career.

The Weight of Days is my tribute to Albert Camus. A man in conflict with himself over the Algerian Civil War. Camus was Algerian-French. His mother, brother and uncle still The Weight of Dayslived in Algiers as the war for Algeria raged. The play concerns his literary and political feud with Jean-Paul Sartre; A man who approved of the violence of the FLN terrorists in Algeria. ‘For anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful.’ Camus’s last days indeed weighed heavy on him. The conflict between love for his family and the love of freedom tearing him apart. He stands with Orwell as one of the two writing giants in my life. The play was a labour of love.

Waugh in Winter is a very different play for me. I was always used to writing plays about people I admired: George Orwell, Kurt Cobain, Spike Milligan, Bobby Kennedy etc. But Evelyn Waugh was an obnoxious snob and deeply appalling human being. I set myself the challenge of writing about someone I despised though I have always admired his literary talent. My way into sympathy for him was in his loneliness. Such was his contempt for the world he found himself in an ivory tower of his own making. Alone and looking down at a 1960’s world he loathed. Damned by his own contempt to be forever lonely. (Post-note: it’s funnier than it sounds…)

Well, that’s how my plays in the collection came to be. I am very proud of them. Most have only had readings, and so if they have a chance of further exposure that would be amazing. For, to paraphrase Arthur Miller, ‘they are all my sons…’

Roy Smiles: Ten Plays is out now. Click here to buy the collection.

Introducing Oberon’s First Ever Digital Only Collection, Roy Smiles: 10 Plays

Oberon Books is thrilled to announce the release of a hilarious new digital only Roy Smiles Ten Plays (2)collection Roy Smiles: 10 Plays. In a first for Oberon Books we have published straight to eBook format, giving our readers a chance to enjoy previously never-before-seen work. Smiles’ unique style of comedy unfolds as he asks his audience to think again about some of the celebrated figures that have come to dominate the collective imagination in recent history. Here, the author takes a moment to talk a little more about the project and reveals the stories behind the first five of these works.

“I have written often about comedians and comedy. For four and a half painful years I was a jobbing stand-up comic. This was after college and my attempt to get an Equity card and earn a living until I could become a writer. I was spectacularly unsuccessful, but coming home after many an indifferent gig I often took solace in listening to my Lenny Bruce albums. A childhood addiction to the movies of the Marx Brothers, encouraged by my grandmother and aunties, led me to the theme of my first play Schmucks, which charts a fictitious meeting between Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx in a diner in New York City during the 1965 blackout. It was first performed at Battersea Arts Centre in 1992 but was significantly rewritten under the guidance of director Terry Johnson, while I had a writing attachment to The National Theatre in 2000. It was finally staged in the US in 2009 at The Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. I suppose I have always been attracted to heroes who were flawed. This was certainly the case with Lenny Bruce, a long term drug addict who died too young.

My brother and I were obsessed with Radio 2 on Sundays because it repeated a lot of the classic radio shows of the 1950’s. This brought me to the comedian Tony Hancock, who inspired my play The Lad Himself. Although I wrote it with the intention of performing it myself, I never had the confidence to try it out; and it was staged excellently at the Brighton Festival in 2012 with the amazing Mark Brailsford as the lead. Tony Hancock’s problem was he reasoned his comedy to death. He could not leave well alone. Eventually he reasoned himself into such a position he had nothing left but alcohol and himself, hence taking his own life in Australia. Alan Galton and Ray Simpson, the writers of Hancock’s Half Hour, were very complimentary about the play which made my heart glad as they are two of my heroes also.

I am a history graduate and my next play, Bombing People, came about due to my obsession with the Enola Gay. I wanted to write a Catch 22 style piece about the atom bombing of Hiroshima and it worked very well when staged at Jermyn Street Theatre with the excellent Michael Fitzgerald in the lead role. I would say the influence of Joseph Heller is strong on the piece but also (once more) the Marx Brothers in their 1933 comedy Duck Soup.

Baghdad Boogie is a play set during the Iraq Crisis. I had a great success with untitledmy Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious piece Kurt & Sid at The Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End and the acting of Shaun Evans and Danny Dyer was so astonishing I was eager to try another two-hander. Lenny Henry was very keen on being in this play and I nearly had a West End production with it but it fell through alas. It remains one of my more powerful pieces however and the two parts are tour de forces for actors of the right age and range.

Reno comes back to my interest in damaged people. Marilyn Monroe was a fragile butterfly nailed up on the cross of her own fame; I was fascinated by her marriage to Arthur Miller: ‘The Egghead & The Movie Star’. The play is set in Reno during the making of what would be her last movie: The Misfits, the filming of which led to her divorce from Miller. Miller has had a hard time from critics over the years over his abandonment of Monroe. But some wounds cannot be healed and the childhood she faced with an abusive mother and appalling step-parents sealed her fate. I hope I have been fair to them both. Again it was staged at the Brighton Festival – this time with an astonishing performance as Marilyn from Lauren Varnfield.”

Be sure to join us on the blog later this week as we delve into the heroes, riots, wars and damaged genius that inspired the remaining five plays in the Roy Smiles collection.

Roy Smiles: Ten Plays hits the shelves today – click here to buy the collection.

 

 

 

 

Reasons to be Graeae: A Foreword From Mat Fraser

 

Graeae LogoGraeae Flyer 2Mat Fraser is an English rock musician, actor, writer and performance artist, Mat-Fraser-2who performed with Graeae’s Reasons To Be Cheerful at the 2012 London Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. Ahead of this month’s release of Reasons To Be Graeae: A Work in Progress, Mat shares the story of how the UK’s flagship disabled-led Theatre Company changed the course of his career.
My mum invited me to a play called Ubu at the Ovalhouse Theatre, South London in 1994, by a disabled theatre company called Graeae. I had ‘come out’ as a disabled person in 1992 at thirty years old; I yearned to do something aligned with my disability politics and love of performing. As the son of two actors, I wanted to act but I had been put off badly by kids laughing at me in the school play audition at thirteen years old, the only disabled kid in my school. I had carried with me from then on the idea that disabled people on stage were nothing more than an embarrassment to most others. Acting was not a possible career for someone with as visibly different a body as mine.
Then I saw Jamie Beddard, a man with a good dose of cerebral palsy, shouting on stage at everyone else and showing his arse. He was spitting cake at a wheelchair using woman, Mandy Colleran, who was mocking him and a Deaf woman, Caroline Parker, who was signing. All manner of radically different things unfolded as the whole company romped their way through the most bawdy, anarchic, messy play I had ever seen. And the sold out, mostly non-disabled audience, loved it. No embarrassment but laughter, cheers, applause, and enjoyment. I’ve often tried to describe the feeling that came over me then, a disabled wannabe actor imprisoned by a notion of, ‘body not good enough’. My whole life exploded as I realised there was a place for me to be, to be equal, understood. I had a non-religious epiphany that night. I decided to leave my band the next morning and try to get an audition with Graeae. I was lucky that Ewan Marshall (then artistic director) saw potential in me. I became a member of the company, doing a three-month schools tour of forum theatre with Colette Conroy. I finally got a part in their production of Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw with Dave Kent, Ilan Dwek, Daryl Beeton, and Jacqui Beckford in 1996-7. From there, I got an Equity card and worked off and on with Graeae for a few years before branching off to do my own work. This disabled theatre company had given me the confidence to perform and a belief that I, as a disabled person, had equal value as an arts creative.
Graeae grew over the next few years, got better funding, and Jenny Sealey took over as artistic director in 1997. Her influence included forming relationships with mainstream theatres, training hungry disabled people in basic theatre skills, and bringing in more and more what we might term, ‘inclusive design’, i.e. building accessibility into the show itself. Additionally, any Graeae show these days has BSL and audio description/stage text built into the script and other areas where possible.
From Nabil Shaban forming Graeae in 1981 to now as I write this thirty seven years later, the growth, output, professionalism, profile, and international relationships with other theatres and groups has grown to make Graeae the leader in disability-led theatre. I live in the US and there is nothing like Graeae here, although there are some that try to emulate it.

Reasons to be Graeae snap 2

– ‘Graeae are an inspiration to the entire industry. [Reasons to be Graeae] is a glorious read.’ – Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre 

Changes to the ethos, such as making the company inclusive in its casting; working on co-productions with mainstream theatres; and making more commercially accessible work have all proved to be successful in raising Graeae’s profile. They are now rightly the most well-known disability-led theatre company in the world. Perhaps more successful is that their influence has reached deep into mainstream UK theatre, which has seen much change although it needs to see and hear a LOT more!
Jack Thorne’s commissioned play The Solid Life of Sugar Water directed by Amit Sharma at the National Theatre, and The House of Bernarda Alba directed by Jenny Sealey at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, are two examples of the heights of the commercial, inclusive theatre profile that Graeae has attained in recent years. I feel super proud of their achievements and influence in UK mainstream theatre—Ramps on the Moon could not have happened without all of Graeae’s work, for example. My last performance work with them was as the drummer on the original tour of Reason to be Cheerful in 2010. I look forward to my next project with them because, as with all the disabled and non-disabled people who have passed through this great company, I will always be a member of their family.

Perseus himself could never have imagined the power those three women crips—the Graeae Sisters had, with only one eye and one tooth between them—when they became the theatre company that saved and made my artistic life, as they have for so many other disabled and non-disabled theatre practitioners.

Reasons to be Graeae: A Work in Progress will be published by Oberon Books on 26th April 2018. Click here to pre-order your copy now.

Reasons to Be Graeae U

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Devil With the Blue Dress: An Explosive New Political Thriller

Devil With the Blue Dress

January 1998: America is rocked by one of the most infamous political sex scandals of all time.
Slyly exhuming the little blue dress that launched the biggest media circus of a generation, the five women who were at the centre of the Monica Lewinsky scandal collide on stage in a gripping new political thriller from Kevin Armento,
DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS.

This explosive theatrical battle over exactly how it all went down asks who were the heroes and villains, and why, twenty years later, we’re only beginning to grapple with one of the most challenging questions in American political history: How do we respond to women seeking power, and the men who misuse it?
As the world faces a new dawn in how it thinks and talks about both historic and recent cases of abuse of power, we asked Kevin Armento and Joshua McTaggart [Artistic Director of The Bunker where DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS premieres later this month] to talk us through their top five pieces of theatre which explore this increasingly prevalent theme.

JOSHUA: KEVIN and I were sat in a pub talking about abuse of power in theatre and politics, which is a common topic we now discuss over a pint. As we thought about our personal favourite plays that explore these issues, we decided to ensure the five we write about in this blog are exclusively by female writers. In light of what we, two men, are discovering in our otherwise all female rehearsal room (cast, creative and production team), we think this list ought to also celebrate the incredible female voices writing in the theatre industry.

HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE by Paula Vogel

Paula Vogel has so frequently been ahead of her time, and her most well-known play is no exception. Exploring power dynamics, abuse, and so much more through the story of a teenage girl and her encounters with her aunt’s husband, the play brilliantly skates back and forth through time, as a means of exploring the dizzying and lasting nature of trauma – it never leaves you. Interestingly, the play premiered off-Broadway two weeks after Bill and Monica’s blue dress encounter. (Though no one knew so at the time.) – KA

POSH by Laura Wade 

Abuse of power is most often rooted in gender imbalances, but something else I think is important to consider is class, status, and wealth. With the growing conversation about the representation of working class stories on our stages, Laura Wade’s POSH, first seen at the Royal Court directed by Lyndsey Turner, whacks you across the face with a fundamental truth: Many of the men in our cabinet were groomed for power in their youth. But perhaps one of the most stomach-turning aspects of the young men in POSH is how we are drawn to them, their charisma, their charm, and their humour. And yet, they betray that audience empathy with inexcusable and abhorrent actions. Much like many of the men (and women) sitting in parliament this very day. – JM

FAR AWAY by Caryl Churchill

This is one of the best plays of the twenty-first century, full stop. As ever, the structure is totally unpredictable yet impeccably drawn, and the scope appears tiny until you’re sucked in close and then she blows the doors off the place. It’s hard to describe the plot of

Devil vid Bill Clinton

DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS takes us to the heart of the first sex scandal of the internet age.

FAR AWAY, but it’s essentially a dystopian drama that explores abuses of state power and terror, and its toxic effect on the citizen. And this play premiered at the Royal Court just seventeen days after America’s election that would see Al Gore lose to George W. Bush – a result many believe was in part due to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. – KA


THE NETHER by Jennifer Haley

When I saw this play at the Royal Court and the conceit of the play was revealed (SPOILER: Most of the action takes place in a virtual world that allows paedophiles to enact their fantasies on virtual avatars that are controlled by grown adults) I swore out loud. I’m not sure if the person next to me was more shocked by my language or the action on stage. Although the abuse that took place in the play was deemed to be consensual, the moral dilemma we were implicated in as an audience was extraordinary. Defining right and wrong became immediately blurred. The play was – in an unsettling way – presented without judgement. That is what we have tried to do in our production [of DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS]: Present a morally dubious scenario without judgement, and allow audiences to make their own conclusions both during – and after – the performance. – JM


RUINED by Lynn Nottage

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winner is a searing portrait of Congolese women, set in a bar within a small mining town near the edge of the rainforest. The play unpacks various meanings of war against women, ultimately zooming out to examine women as the battlefield itself. It beautifully utilises specificity in character and setting to render an ecosystem writ large, one that echoes out far beyond the confines of Mama Nadi’s bar. RUINED premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on November 8, 2008, four days after Barack Obama was elected president – which he won, of course, after defeating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. – KA

 

The play text of DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS will be published to coincide with the shows premiere on 29th March. Click here to pre-order your copy.
DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS will be playing at The Bunker from 29th March – 28th April 2018. Click here for more information and tickets.