Female Playwrights Are on Form (for the Most Part)


LONDON — Call it an act of homage, authorial daring or simply a playwright having a bit of fun, but Laura Wade’s “The Watsons” is one of this year’s smartest plays so far, and also among the sweetest. Picking up where Jane Austen left her unfinished novel of the same name, Ms. Wade brings these Regency-era characters to the stage accompanied by her modern-day self.

The giddy result was first seen last year at the Chichester Festival Theater, in southeast England, and has since transferred to the Menier Chocolate Factory through Nov. 16. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this play, like Ms. Wade’s previous works “Posh” and the Olivier Award-winning “Home, I’m Darling,” finds a longer life still, not least among playgoers who like a bit of spice in their period pieces.

Ms. Wade’s conceit, clever without ever turning arch, allows her an onstage surrogate in the form of the bristling, quick-witted Laura (a terrific Louise Ford). Entering the action in contemporary street clothes that stand out from the bonnets and breeches around her, Laura reflects upon the act of writing while attempting to finish what Austen started early in the 19th century. (To this day, scholars are unsure why this particular Austen narrative never made it to the final sentence; the book was first published posthumously in 1871.)

Laura, of course, is a playwright, not a novelist, an important distinction that she addresses head-on: “I like it when they clap,” she says of the appeal of live performance. At the same time, existing in the here and now gives Laura access to a discourse about writing that would have been alien to Austen and the gentry she brought to the page. We hear about characters emerging from the “unconscious,” a psychological term Mrs. Bennet wouldn’t have known to employ, and there’s a Brexit-era quip about having to “respect the result” that surely would have received blank stares from Austen and her contemporaries.

One obvious forerunner of Ms. Wade’s frolics here is Luigi Pirandello’s genre-bending “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” the 1921 classic in which a dramatist and his characters come to an uneasy face-off. “The Watsons” builds upon the themes of its iconic predecessor in offering an assemblage of Austen characters — the young Emma Watson (a piquant Grace Molony) chief among them — who clamor for “something to do” and, in at least one instance, resist being fictionalized at all. The onstage Laura admits to being “in conversation with Pirandello,” but the primary connection made by “The Watsons” is to its audience, who at a recent matinee seemed to be all smiles as events went their merrily unexpected way.

The production is robustly directed by Samuel West, who also happens to be Ms. Wade’s partner and the father of their two daughters (who are referred to in passing). Almost as remarkable as the sustained sleight-of-hand of the writing is the fact that the play boasts a cast of 18, the sort of scale you’d usually expect from a musical. Might a song-and-dance extravaganza be yet another method of bringing closure to Austen’s novel? Were Ms. Wade moved in that direction, very little would appear to be off limits. “You have to feel pulled toward your desk,” we’re told of the primal need to write, as expressed by a writer for whom anything increasingly seems possible.

“The Watsons” is one of a clutch of London plays this season that either engage with dramatic shape-shifting or put unpredictable women center stage. Less accomplished, though on paper no less intriguing, is “Two Ladies,” at the Bridge Theater through Oct. 26. Across 100 minutes without an intermission, the Irish playwright Nancy Harris imagines a meeting between the wives of two world leaders who are brought together to commiserate, and more, while their (unseen) husbands talk realpolitik in a room not far away as revolution stirs in the streets outside.

The obvious prototypes for Helen (a peppery Zoë Wanamaker) and Sophia (Zrinka Cvitesic) are Brigitte Macron, the wife of President Emmanuel Macron of France, and Melania Trump, the first lady of the United States. At the same time, enough is different about Ms. Harris’s characters to individuate them from their inspirations: Helen is English, not French, and was once a journalist (although she is much older than her husband, as is the case with the Macrons); the excellent Ms. Cvitesic, an Olivier Award winner for the musical “Once,” plays an aggrieved spouse who is from her native Croatia, not Slovenia, and who speaks in the play of the child she never had; the Trumps, of course, have a young son.

As it happens, “Two Ladies” needs as many real-life parallels as it can muster once the plot has derailed into absurdity and melodrama. It’s easy to see the appeal of this material to Ms. Harris as an exercise in female empowerment and agency — Sophia, in particular, becomes emboldened as the play progresses — but there’s no escaping the sense that Nicholas Hytner’s production is working with an attenuated script that feels a draft or two away from its full potential. “Two Ladies” feels like a pitch for a play, not the finished product.

That’s not the case across town at the Royal Court, the capital’s leading address for new writing, which in recent weeks has passed a provocative baton between two generations of female writers. “A History of Water in the Middle East,” at the Court’s intimate Theater Upstairs through Nov. 16, goes one better than “The Watsons” in placing its British-Egyptian writer, Sabrina Mahfouz, among its cast of four in what turns out to be less a play than an illustrated lecture with music, played live by the composer, Kareem Samara.

Ms. Mahfouz traverses locations, as well as epochs past and future, to chronicle the saga of Britain’s engagement in the Middle East alongside the author’s personal account of her flirtation with a career as a spy. If the hourlong evening feels a tad slight, Stef O’Driscoll’s production exists cleverly perched between a lecture and a concert, which in turn flavors the instruction with a hipster vibe.

And there’s no one more momentous, albeit unaffectedly so, in her playwriting finesse than Caryl Churchill, age 81, whose quartet of new plays finished an acclaimed, too-brief run on the Court main stage on Oct. 12. Fusing a deep sense of foreboding alongside an abiding playfulness, the various one-acts — “Imp,” especially — confirmed a masterful ability to experiment with both subject matter and form that remains without peer. Ms. Churchill’s 1982 play, “Top Girls,” was revived at the National Theater this year, and in her ninth decade, she’s still at the top.

The Watsons. Directed by Samuel West. Menier Chocolate Factory, through Nov. 16.

Two Ladies. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Bridge Theater, through Oct. 26.

A History of Water in the Middle East. Directed by Stef O’Driscoll. Royal Court Theater Upstairs, through Nov. 16.

Nguồn The NewYork Times


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