JOYCE MCMILLAN on WOMEN IN THEATRE for the Scotsman Magazine, 27.9.14. _________________________________________________________
ON MONDAY of this week, a group of leading women in British theatre assembled in London to debate what can be done to improve female representation in what often sees itself as the UK’s most radical and inclusive art-form. On the day they met, they were told, only 29% of major shows playing in London had been directed by women; astonishingly, only one of them, Agatha Christie’s 62-year-old hit The Mousetrap, was actually written by a woman. And the discussion ranged over various measures that might be taken to shift the balance, including inviting directors of leading theatres to pledge themselves to achieve overall gender equality in casting, across each year.
And I have to say that I found myself reading all this with a certain sense of complacency. The figures in Scotland, I thought, were surely better than that these days. The first director of the National Theatre of Scotland, Vicky Featherstone, was a woman, and there are now many female artistic directors across the country, from Orla O’Loughlin at the Traverse to Jackie Wylie at the Arches in Glasgow, and Jemima Levick, joint artistic director of Dundee Rep. We also have a dedicated woman-led company in Stellar Quines; and since David MacLennan’s sad death in June, another woman – Susannah Armitage – has taken on the role of producer at A Play, A Pie And A Pint in Glasgow.
So I began to crunch the numbers, taking as a tiny sample the 13 professionally-produced shows I have reviewed in Scotland since the end of the Edinburgh Festival; and found myself unpleasantly surprised by the results. It’s true that of those 13 shows, six were directed by women, although three of those were in the shoestring environment of A Play, A Pie And A Pint. When it came to writers, though, the balance was fairly shocking, with 14 male writers represented (two of the shows involved two male writers) and only one woman; and the casting was also heavily male-dominated, with 41 roles for men, and only 22 for women.
Now there are, of course, many ways of tackling this traditional gender bias in theatre, from the kinds of pledges discussed in London on Monday, to the simple device of taking great roles originally written for men, and inviting women to play them; the great Maxine Peake is giving an acclaimed performance as Hamlet in Manchester, as I write.
The problem, though, is that it’s not possible to legislate for artistic inspiration; and absolutely futile to try to tell artists what they should want to write about. As it happens, this autumn’s gender balance in Scottish theatre is set to improve soon, with Sue Glover’s great all-female play Bondagers about to take the stage at the Lyceum, a new all-female touring version of Gogol’s The Gamblers opening in Dundee next month, and John Byrne’s new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in Glasgow from next week, and at the King’s, Edinburgh in October.
Yet the reasons for the heavy male presence in the early part of the season include D.C. Jackson’s powerful embrace of the gangster-movie genre in his new Lyceum black comedy Kill Johhny Glendenning – which features six male characters and just one female – and the inspired grumpy-old-men creativity of Still Game, a show which famously features six leading male characters, and only one woman, the unlovely Isa.
So do we want to stifle the use of traditionally male-dominated genres – or of classic texts which almost always have male-dominated casts – to achieve better gender balance in theatre? I think not. The evidence suggests, though, that the more gender balance is monitored, and the more those in charge of arts organisations become aware of it, the easier it becomes to match those traditionally “male” strands of drama with work that reflects female lives and experience. And given the amount of female talent available in Scotland, I suspect that a slightly more determined effort to do that, across Scotland’s theatres, might now produce some impressive and exciting results.