There is much to wrap the grey matter around, it has a really clever structure that keeps you on your toes
Ella Hickson's new play The Writer is a powerful piece of meta-theatre, tackling gender bias in the arts head on but also opening up the debate about creativity vs commercialisation.
It has a structure which makes you work, like you are stood on sand that shifts slightly just as you think you've got a sure footing.
She is very angry, challenging him on the play, its representation of women but also on how women are perceived and treated within the industry.
He is a mix of bemused and interested but stands his ground.
It is a powerful exchange but not quite what you think it is. The sands shift and we are at a Q&A about the scene we have just seen with the nervous writer (Romola Garai) and domineering director (Michael Gould) taking questions from the audience.
You get to see some of the issues raised in action which is tactic that is repeated.
There is another shift and another, plays within plays, circles, characters and roles overlapping, transforming, developing layers of irony and sharpening the debate.
The set is also a set within a set, sometimes creating a 'box' on which to focus on only for the walls to come down to reveal something else.
Showing rather the telling
Showing can be more powerful than telling when it comes gender politics and what The Writer does is show just how deep it goes, how ingrained, how subtle it can be.
And then there is the debate about art, creativity and commercialisation.
Part of the Writer's struggle is to get her work accepted as it is, compromising is like something being ripped from her.
In an interview, Ella Hickson describes her dislike of the 'the increasingly pervasive idea of a play as commercial product'.
It is an idea reflected in a section where Romola Garai's character is playing a scene with a starkly contrasting setting that feels like a metaphor for both the feminist struggle and creativity.
When it finishes the director bluntly critiques it, arguing that the audience will prefer a different scene (one we've already seen), that that is more powerful and then he tells her to write a proper ending.
There is an argument about design versus art - you change a design to make it work whereas art is an expression of the person creating it and you either get it or you don't.
A shift too far
I was with the 'director' in this particular scenario. It is a scene that felt like it had shifted too far and lost the (real) audience, left us in the dark which is just how the scene is played out.
Does an expression of creativity matter if there is no audience for it? Is having an ear for the audience - compromise I suppose - selling out your creativity? Is true creativity only that which is unfettered?
It is a risky scene, one with double irony and on which the play can hang or fall. I know people for whom it was the latter, that they got lost in the jungle of the scene.
For me, it was a really interesting point to raise but it was over-indulged by how long it plays out and as such became a weakness in the overall piece.
If I say The Writer is the most interesting play I've seen in a while, it is said without any irony, it genuinely is. There is much to wrap the grey matter around, it has a really clever structure that keeps you on your toes but the play isn't without its flaws so I'm giving it 4 stars.
See it at the Almeida Theatre until May 26 and I saw a preview performance. It is 2 hours and 5 minutes without an interval.