How Silo Theatre’s newest piece breaks the scene wide open
The beginning of The Writer takes the audience by surprise. The house lights blare and the pre-show playlist slowly drops off as a Young Woman walks from the audience onto the seemingly unarranged stage. She’s met with an Older Man, the writer of the show she’s just seen. She attempts to retrieve the bag she’s forgotten, while he asks if she enjoyed the play. An argument breaks out—she thinks it was sexist and she’s angry about the state of theatre. He’s defensive and condescending, and a heated discussion about power unravels. Then, these characters break, and assume the role of Actors, as a Writer and Director walk on stage. They put down chairs and engage in an awkward panel discussion about the dialogue that’s just played out. The beginning of The Writer fiercely attacks the forms and norms of performance. It sets up the cathartic challenge the play poses to the forces that constrain and drain theatre of its magic.
The Writer, which has landed at Q Theatre after its exciting premiere in London in 2018, explores sex, power, capitalism, and theatre in our current culture context. Throughout the play, these themes are explored through different settings, though it’s consistently staged as a meta-text. It knows it’s taking place in the space of the theatre, and highlights the power struggles relevant to the art form. It depicts a female Writer struggling against a male Director, trying to get a story told on her terms, which he doesn’t appreciate or attempt to understand (he tells her that her rage is “zeitgeisty”). It shows the discomfort of an actor of colour, as white creatives stumble over words like intersectionality and diversity. It represents the possibility of non-normative theatre, which is quickly interrupted by the Director’s rejection. The writer of the piece, Ella Hickson, says that she “really wanted to break things” in the play, and the piece does, again and again.
The play is divided across five acts, and breaks many naturalistic conventions of theatre. The four actors play different characters, the wings of the stage are visible throughout many scenes, the fourth wall is repeatedly broken, stagehands walk through active scenes, audience plants speak from the theatre seats, and the dialogue is intricate and certainly heightened. As an audience member, you’re never quite sure what the rules are, and it’s a nerve-wracking, exciting experience. It takes apart the patriarchal constructs of theatre, of realism and naturalism, and imagines who a break to those forms might be liberating for.
And the play doesn’t necessarily offer resolve. It highlights the inherent objectification of women on stage, points at the restriction of normative dramaturgical forms, and considers the degradation that seeking profit in the setting can cause. It cracks these massive problems open, representing them frankly and with clear disdain. The closest it gets to finding peace is in the third act, staging the the experience of getting an IUD, the myth of Semele, and the freedom of sex without the gaze through narration and poetic movement. But of course, that’s interrupted, and the audience is left to imagine how we might really access theatre beyond patriarchal forms.
The Writer is steadfast in its quest for magic and forcefully condemns norms of the form. Hopefully, it’s a stepping stone piece for more works that will challenge the wider power structures that impede expression in our art. These forces are insistent, but so is theatre, and as the Young Woman asserts it should be “made to heal us.”
The Writer, directed by Sophie Roberts, runs until 18 September at Q Theatre. It stars Sophie Henderson, Ash Williams, Stephen Lovatt, and Matt Whelan.
Photo by Andi Crown Photography