Last year’s Oil was a sprawling, thrilling, 160-year journey through the titular industry, segueing from century to century, life to life. Playwright Ella Hickson returns to the Almeida with an altogether leaner but equally ethereal play about the insidious patriarchy and the sexual minefield young women navigate.
It begins with a woman returning to an empty theatre to retrieve a lost bag. She gets chatting to the director of the play, an older man, who’s apparently impressed by her passion and keen to further her career. Then she claims they’ve met before, when he offered similar support, but there was a catch...
Then the director walks onto stage. Another director; their director. The pair were actors in a play about the patriarchy and its insidious effect on young women. Only... Has the same thing happened between the “real” director and the “real” playwright? How many layers does this onion have? It’s all very meta.
For half an hour, the auditorium lights remain on, suggesting we’re a part of this tawdry routine, complicit in it. Later they switch off altogether, leaving us sitting in the dark. There’s a sequence set in the woods that I didn’t follow at all, which may or may not have been intentional. Other scenes have a nightmarish quality, such as when the playwright gazes into the audience in terror, apparently aware she’s being watched. Brechtian is an overused phrase, but this is Brechtian TTM.
At its worst, the play feels like it was written to be studied rather than experienced, revelling in its own twisty cleverness. But there are times when it perfectly skewers gender roles, capturing the fragile egos women must tip-toe around, the sexual demands they grudgingly acquiesce to, the power dynamics they’re forced to accept.
Hickson took six years to finish Oil; by contrast, The Writer feels very much of the here-and-now, a reflection of immediate anger and frustration. It’s a demanding play, at times deliberately oblique, but it’s a fascinating exercise in using form as narrative, skillfully exploring the boundaries and limitations of theatre. Hickson seems destined for great things.