London’s National Theater’s reimagining of the play “Top Girls”

Top Girls is a play in four acts written by Caryl Churchill who is considered by some to be the UK’s leading socialist-feminist playwright. Her works tend to explore topics such as gender construction (a topic that I’ve spent a lot of time teaching), sexual politics (a political theory named after a book that is obligatory reading for anyone studying feminism) and abuses of power. The production I saw was put on the London’s National Theater, and took some research to try to understand because of choices made by the director that resulted in confusion for people (like myself and my cousin) who had no knowledge of the play in advance.

First produced in 1982, and is set in 1980’s Britain, it is the type of show that tends to be done in smaller venues — or in US parlance, it’s the sort of off off broadway type of show that is intentionally NOT intended to be commercial, and as such in general will only appeal to hard core theater aficionados who like their shows to have a political message, and the actors performing the parts.

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Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I advise everyone to check out the Txts booth in Leicester Square as a matter of course. One of the exceptions to this rule is anything put on by the National Theater. Their tickets should be purchased either online or from their box office, because they’re already government subsidized and are never discounted further.

Sadly, I completely forgot to take any photos for this play or of the theater… not even my obligatory one of me holding the ticket. There are however no shortage of press release images of the production on google (follow this link). In my defense, at the time I was suffering a serious case of the dizzies, was staying at my cousin’s (from my dad’s side) place way out the suburbs, when a cousin from my mom’s side informed me she was in London and suggested I buy tickets for this play and we could meet up there. I knew NOTHING about the show going in. Because of the dizzies, going there alone from his place out in the suburbs was not in the cards, so I convinced him to come along and he drove. As luck would have it, my other cousin was nowhere to be seen, and didn’t bother returning any of my txts till well after the show when we were well on our way back home.

The first scene of the play I found quite compelling. It involves the central character of the play — a modern British woman, Marlene, who’s just been promoted to the head of her office at a job placement agency, who is throwing herself a celebratory dinner party and has invited as her guests famous women of antiquity. (One is forced to wonder if maybe she has no real life friends to turn to because she’s been so focused on her work.) So not only did the play delve into issues of gender construction and feminist issues, but did so on a backdrop of women from different points of history, and different cultures… so RIGHT up my alley so to speak.

Her first guest to arrive is Isabella Bird, a woman out of history that would be familiar to most of Churchill’s British audience members, as they’re most likely the sort of highly cultured and educated sort who watch history shows on the BBC and probably attended University (like I said, off off broadway). This second character in effect is setting the scene for all of the following characters that might be less familiar to the show’s audience. For those who don’t know her (lord knows I did not, but my British cousin claimed he sort of remembered who she was) Bird was an independent woman traveller, writer and photographer from 18th century England. She was a prolific travel writer with 28 titles to her name, which include: The Englishwoman in America (1856) — her first hit book which was based on all of the letters she’d written home about her travels, and was followed by other like works such as Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: Travels of a Lady in the Interior of Japan (1879), and Among the Tibetans (1894) — that were again based on her letters home. Most of Bird’s titles are still in print, and her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is even available as an Audiobook! This tells you relevant her works still are. Since her death, she’s had numerous biographies written about her, and has even has a series of Japanese manga about her called Isabella Bird in Wonderland, which focuses on her visit to Japan.

Her arrival in the play is shortly followed by the arrival of another historical figure, who is much more obscure, Lady Nijo, one of the Japanese Emperor’s concubines from 1271 to 1283, who later became a nun and wrote her autobiography. The book wasn’t a hit but had historical value, and as such one remaining copy (a 17th century printing) was discovered in the Emperor’s family library in 1940 and then republished under the titles The Confessions of Lady Nijo and also Lady Nijo’s own story; the candid diary of a thirteenth-century Japanese imperial concubine.  I searched Amazon and found these both of these titles still available for sale there, but no one biography.

The third guest was one I HAD heard of, Pope Joan. YES, you heard me, Pope JOAN (we don’t know what her actual name was)…  While the church denies that she ever existed, and to this day many historians discount her as myth, her story is well known and her possible existence helps to explain some weird things. Such as, there’s a VERY odd part of the Pope’s swearing in process — the existence of which makes no sense whatsoever, UNLESS she had existed. The story is that a woman fell in love with a priest, and was convinced by him to dress as a man and to join the church during the Middle Ages, so that they could stay together. Apparently she was so smart and capable, that she managed to rise to the top position (top girls anyone?), but had the bad luck to go into labor in the middle of religious procession. According to the character in the play, the robes helped hide her condition and folks just assumed she/he’d gotten fat. Her gender now discovered she either died in labor or was put to death, the play opted for killed. As a result, the whole path of that procession has been changed to avoid the street where she supposedly went into labor (one thing explained).  But the oh so odd part of the popes ritual swearing it helps explain, is that he has to sit on a contraption like a toilet seat with no bowl underneath, while he has his genitals inspected, to make sure they’re there… and more importantly, are of the right sort. Many people believe she was Pope John XX, which explains why this title is sometimes referred to as the missing pope (there’s nothing about that pope in the books, but the church has come up with a rationalization for the discrepancy)…

The fourth guest to arrive is, Dull Gret (also known as Mad Meg), a woman from Flemish folklore, who doesn’t have much to say, which makes sense as she’s a character from a 1563 oil-on-panel painting by Pieter Bruegel (the elder). In fact his painting of her, Dulle Griet, is one of his most famous works. Here she is depicted as a woman who is leading an army of other women in an attack on hell itself.

The final guest is another character from European folklore, Patient Griselda.  She was first written about by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his famous and influential work (I had to read it for a history class, it actually helped to spark a revolution) The Decameron. The story is by our perspective horrific. All British audience member should be somewhat familiar with her tale as one of the books Boccaccio’s work helped to influence was Chaucer‘s famous work, The Canterbury Tales, where she also appears. The basic story is that she’s a lower class woman married to an upper class man, attracted to her beauty, who over the years puts her through a series of horrific and mentally abusive tests of her patience and devotion to him… all of which she passes. At the end, her sufferings are rewarded. (It’s enough to make a modern woman gag.)

Once the dinner is over we are taken to the employment agency where Marlene works, and we meet her co-workers and some of the girls who are there applying for jobs. This scene is so incredibly different that it seemed like we were almost in a completely different play. It felt VERY disconnected. Later, after me and my cousin got home, I started researching the play and learned that in the original version, all the new characters that are introduced were SUPPOSED to have been played by the same actresses who had done the previous characters.

At this point the curtain comes down and the audience is released for an intermission. When we returned the next act, which at first seems to have nothing to do with what came before, and as such feels utterly disjointed. It’s two girls talking. And therein lays the problem with this production… Initially it was written so that the women who played the historical characters are then ‘re-cast’ into the modern day as other characters, and the fact that it’s the same actresses playing them helps to link the characters of the women we met before into these new modern day characters… Marlene is the only character that stays the same through the play.

In the later scenes we learn she is completely disconnected from her family. She and her sister no longer speak, and her sister’s child is biologically Marlene’s, who she had abandoned in order to become a “Top Girl.” All of which helps to explain the focused determination that got her there, but how that success had a cost in her personal relationships… which may be why when it was time to celebrate her achievement, her only companions were women from books and history.

However, because this production chose to expand the number of actors used, all of that subtext got lost. Both my cousin and I, who had never seen the original productions and knew nothing about the show going in, left the theater more than a bit confused. We debated it’s meaning the whole trek home to his place, and the next morning again over our breakfast. So if the point was to make us think, it was successful… but we both found ourselves independently going on to the internet to try to comprehend what we had just seen, because it was FAR from self evident based on the production.

To that end, while doing additional research for this article I found a BBC online University video that includes not just the entire play, but a preamble discussing it and an interview with the playwright. The downside of this video is that you don’t really get to enjoy the play and then hear a discussion of it, rather the ‘instructor’ inserts commentary right over the actors speeches…. which are hard enough to make out as one of Churchill’s favorite techniques is to use over-speaking…  multiple actors talking at once (the fact that she has the Japanese character doing this as well shows how little she understood Japanese culture, in my opinion).

I then found THIS 2nd rendition of it on Youtube, put on by a theater group in Seoul South Korea made up entirely of English speaking expats, of the ENTIRE play… all two hours of it.

But in this case it was recorded in a very low tech manner, so that you’ll need to strain to hear the actors … again.

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