The Female of the Species, written by one of Australia’s foremost playwrights Joanna Murray-Smith, transforms cerebral feminist ideology into a Hollywood movie-like comedy. Drawing inspiration from a real incident in which the feminist celebrity Germaine Greer was held hostage by a female student in her Essex home, the play makes a farcical critique of the ‘f’ theory and its practice.
Played to great acclaim in Australia and New Zealand, the show opened at the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End under the direction of Roger Michell. The play starts in the living room of a country house, complete with French windows and a fresh green meadow dotted with grazing cows. A female torso lies on the desk, a reminder of the famous cover on Greer’s book The Female Eunuch (Designed by Mark Thompson). The production roughly parallels Greer’s disturbing predicament, though at times it errs more on the side of slapstick comedy with its five cartoon-like characters caught up in humorous and improbable events.
While the ‘femi-demic’ Margot Mason played by Eileen Atkins suffers from severe writer’s block, university drop out Molly River, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, visits (intrudes) her house. Seemingly intent on debating the merits of Margot’s seminal works from ‘The Cerebral Vagina’ to ‘Clitorism’, she suddenly draws a gun on Margot and handcuffs her to the desk. She accuses the author not only of ruining her life but her mother’s life too. The mother, under the intense influence of Margot’s writing, abandoned Molly as a baby to avoid being ‘enslaved’ by motherhood; she ended up committing suicide and was found with Margot’s book clasped to her bosom.
The orphan Molly grew up to be a feminist and sterilised herself to preserve her creativity. Her call for for revenge came after attending Margot’s creative writing class only to be told that she had no talent. In the ‘handcuff hold up’ scene, she condemns Margot’s writing as little more than a ploy to pay off her mortgage and certainly not the paradigm-shifting, patriarch-busting substance it is made out to be.
Margot’s daughter Tess (Sophie Thompson) wanders in, exhausted by the daily drain of motherhood. She’s left her children at home alone and taken a taxi to her mother’s place. While Margot and Molly battle over feminist polemic, Tess turns against her mother who despises her daughter’s lack of career ambition. She also accuses her for never having brought her father into her life. In a perverse change of events she begins to encourage Molly’s revenge antics: ‘For Christ’s sake, shoot her! And then shoot me!’
Tess’s husband Bryan (Paul Chahidi) rushes in after getting a call from police. He is a strange mixture of hardworking stockbroker and a domestic, but liberal husband. He makes frequent faux-pas as in his line ‘I love you, Tess. You know I’ve always mounted you on a pedestal.’ His feminine character sits in stark contrast to the next intruder, Frank (Con O’Neill), the macho taxi driver who brought Tess to the house earlier. Sporting a sweat-soaked shirt, he insists that he knows what women want and describes how he could apply this certainty to Tess.
After the gun brawl that nearly gets Margot killed, this well-made West End play ends with a denouement reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The final visitor, Margot’s publisher Theo (Sam Kelly), solves most of the conflicts by placating Molly’s revenge with the offer of a contract to write her own ‘sensational’ biography. Furthermore, Tess’s father is identified and the now unshackled Margot vows to write another bestseller.
Eileen Atkins is able to portray the complexity of the ‘monster’ feminist writer. Physically restricted to the desk most of the time, she plays this self-opinionated, quick-witted, steely and yet lazy character with inspiring ease. Anna Maxwell Martin’s awkward movements and absurd eloquence form a strong chemistry with Atkins – more so than the relationship between Margot and her Daughter Thompson. Ironically or intentionally, the male characters, especially Frank and Theo come across as underdeveloped in the script and artificial on stage.
While The Female of the Species is taken up with debates around the impact and limits of feminism, sexual and gender politics, roles of men and women, it covers wider subjects including mother-daughter relationships, gaps between generations and social status, the roles of authors who influence readers and society, and money-driven publishing trends. Although the wordy speeches occasionally veer into intellectual spin and overcooked dramatic effects, the auditorium was generally alive with laughter.
The most unsatisfactory part of the production was the Hollywood movie ending. The expected denouement unfolds like a convenient joke, and as a result this farcical critique of feminism loses its potential punch and ends up being yet another light-hearted night out at the heart of money-driven theatre land.