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Sunday, 6 January 2013

Laughing in the Face of Sexism

By David Bullen

Last year I gave a talk to FemSoc about the importance of feminism when it comes to reviving classic drama; I realised just the other day how much I (unfairly) focused on tragedy. Perhaps this reflects a wider bias in classic theatre towards the ‘great’ tragic stories of Lear, Macbeth, Oedipus and their peers. If it does, then it’s an unfair bias, certainly when it comes to the importance of feminism in theatre.
Political theatre has a tendency to veer towards the tragic, or at least the serious; it usually requires you sit in your seat for longer as well. The National Theatre’s production of Brecht’s Mother Courage in 2009 is one of the finest shows I’ve seen, and very politically minded – but at three hours long and covering the grim fate of a mother and her children in war-torn Europe, it wasn’t something you’d perhaps opt to see again and again. It can be hard for such theatre to spread its message when it lacks the mass appeal of lighter stuff.

So this article is in praise of the other side of the theatrical coin: comedy. It should never be underestimated how powerful it is to laugh; it bonds an audience and generates a sense of community –it is an affirmation of shared experiences. While political theatre, including feminist theatre, might seek to drive home necessary messages via tales of woe, there is also huge potential in parody, satire and the absurd. It is a type of performance that runs strong in Britain, whether it’s Have I Got News for You or the seasonal feast of pantomime.

Now, panto isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s certainly not the first genre activists turn to in order to affect change. It thrives, however, on contemporary culture and there is no reason why that can’t be used for the purposes of political theatre. The theatre company I help run, By Jove, did exactly this before Christmas with a pantomime version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The source novel was perfect: it’s so central to our current conceptions of romance, marriage, courtship, and an entire historical period. While it may not be bang up to date, it’s a feminist text in its own way; all that remained for us was to add a good sprinkling of panto.

We were often asked whether the show was a parody of Pride and Prejudice – we would always reply with a firm ‘no’. It was instead a parody of the gender values and societal norms that Austen herself was subtly mocking. The descendents of Mr Darcy are Edward Cullen and Christian Gray, extrapolations of a character archetype placed into a narrative context that is vehemently anti-feminist – Darcy himself, a creation of the early nineteenth century, is less of a damaging figure. The irony of this situation demonstrates how those ridiculous ideas about gender in relationships still exist, and it’s those ideas we were mocking. I don’t suspect that anyone left our show reassessing their opinions on gender, but the warm response it received indicates to me that all that community-building laughter underlies a recognition that yes, sexist values still exist in our society but we realise, whether we like it or not, that they’re ridiculous and archaic.

I’ll conclude by saying that one of the most affective pieces of feminist theatre I’ve ever seen was a final year project in Royal Holloway’s own Drama Department. In just half an hour, a group of five women said volumes about misogyny in the advertising industry and the wider media through nothing more than simple comedy sketches. If the raucous applause and constant guffawing throughout was any indicator, the audience loved it.

So I apologise for neglecting comedy in my talk, I’ll be sure to remedy it in the future. I’ve learned a lesson from it, though, furthered by working on Pride and Prejudice: The Panto. There is of course a place for tragedy in politically minded theatre, but its status in the canon shouldn’t distract from the powerful and affecting potential also offered by something that will make us cry with laughter and not tears.

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