The inspiration was simple... “well behaved women seldom make history”.
And from that controversial statement has sprung four short works by female writers.
The plays are being championed by RSC deputy director Erica Whyman, as part of the RSC’s first Midsummer Mischief festival taking place in Stratford-upon-Avon– which also features an exhibition on the RSC’s first female director Buzz Goodbody, a one-day family festival and a day of conversations about feminism and Shakespeare.
REVOLT. SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN by Alice Birch – one of the plays – has won the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright. Previous winners including Mike Leigh, Richard Bean and Penelope Skinner.
“Alice is one of our youngest playwrights,” says Erica. “REVOLT is a play about the necessity and near impossibility of a sexual revolution from the perspective of a young woman. It’s a very funny play and very problematic.
“Alice is interested in the world of work and money and how that has eclipsed the sexual revolution. Sharp-witted and quite dark it looks at how we have become tied-up with concepts of motherhood and what we look like.”
In one of two double bills performed by six actors, Erica is directing Alice’s play as well as The Ant and the Cicada by Timberlake Wertenbaker.
“In The Ant and the Cicada we meet two sisters on a Greek island. They are Anglo-Greek,” says Erica.
“It appears to be a domestic play about their relationship but it is a profoundly metaphoric play about art and the economy; Europe and Greece.
“Timberlake is part-French. She was struck by the hypocrisy of the English to Greece. It’s also a feminist play: two women over 40 mainly talking about economy, philosophy and politics – not about men or marriage.”
Jo McInnes is directing the second double-bill – E. V. Crowe’s I Can Hear You and This is Not an Exit by Abi Zakarian.
“I Can Hear You is a story about grief and how you understand yourself in your family,” says Erica.
“It’s about a family who have lost their mum and they do not have much of a send-off for her. When the brother dies he has a big send-off. The family starts to look at itself and how they feel about each other. It’s about ghosts and being a woman of a certain age. E V Crowe has been quite brave in writing a woman who is not easily liked.”
“Abi’s play thinks about the feminist debate. She has observed three or four generations of women and how we are stuck in different ways. Feminism has not liberated us. It’s a short, sharp, funny play.”
The plays are a contemporary response to the Roaring Girls season currently taking place at The Swan Theatre. Writers were given the brief “well behaved women seldom make history”.
“I was on a work trip to New York when I came across a book by Laurel Ulrich called Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History,” Erica explains.
“She’s an historian and quite inadvertently was talking about the influence of women when she used the phrase in a history book. Then someone sent her a mug with the quote on it – she had no idea the expression had been taken up.
“Laurel then wrote this book which includes Virginia Woolf, a well-behaved person and badly behaved in her books, and medieval writer Christine de Pizan, who even then said that hundreds of women get forgotten.
“I cannot make my mind up as to whether you have to be badly behaved to make history, or people who do make history break the rules. We expect women to be better behaved than men or women expect it of themselves. That runs through the plays.”
Erica, 44, joined the RSC two years ago after seven years of running Northern Stage in Newcastle. This is her first directing role at the theatre since returning to work full-time, following the birth of her baby daughter, Ruby, last April.
“There’s something liberating about being in rehearsal that lets you let go of some of the guilt of being a working mum.
“There are quite a lot of others involved with the festival with young children. I want that to be normal. It should not matter. Mums and dads are capable of doing significant jobs yet we are tied in knots about it, it’s a real shame,” she says.
“I am lucky I do a fascinating, demanding job. When I said I wanted to come back full-time, the RSC believed me. It’s my responsibility to make it work.”
A pop-up theatre has been built inside The Other Place at The Courtyard Theatre for the festival. One of Erica’s main tasks is to revitalise the RSC’s experimental studio space as a home for new work, as well as directing her own productions and forging new artistic collaborations.
She has a life-long love of Shakespeare, his humanity, radical experimentalism and his powerful sense of mischief.
“I can’t really believe I am curating such a passionate group of plays about feminism; it is 20 years since I last marched for women’s rights in Reclaim the Streets.
“Now I see a lot of young women caught up with how they look, expecting they will fall in love and get married, only they are sort of dreading it,” she says.
“We do not have enough role models of women in authority. We see so few plays about something other than the domestic lives of men or women. I cannot think of many women in TV dramas, who are not in a crisis domestically.”
A cross-cast includes Ruth Gemmell, who played opposite Colin Firth in Fever Pitch and was recently in Channel 4’s Utopia, Casualty’s Robert Boulter, John Bowe, well-known for TV roles in Prime Suspect, Coronation Street and Cranford, Scarlett Brookes, Julie Legrand and Mimi Ndiweni.
As well as curating The Roaring Girls season and Midsummer Mischief Festival, Erica is directing Phil Porter’s uplifting new play for families, The Christmas Truce. It recounts the true and moving story of British and German soldiers who left their trenches on Christmas Eve in December 1914 to meet their enemies in No Man’s Land.
It will run alongside Love’s Labour Lost and Love Labour’s Won, set just before and after the First World War.
* Midsummer Mischief runs until July 12 at The Other Place, The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Royal Court Theatre, London from July 15 -17. It also includes Midsummer Sundae, a free family summer festival on Sunday, and a day of conversations and events on June 28.
For tickets and a full schedule for Midsummer Mischief go to www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/midsummer-mischief or ring 0844 800 1110.