Female of the Species
This play by Joanna Murray Smith was commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company and had its premiere there almost 2 years ago. Its arrival in London has caused something of a stir because it is based on an incident involving feminist writer, academic and critic Germaine Greer, when a student apparently broke into her house and held her hostage for a short time.
Despite Ms Murray Smith's statements that the play is not about Germaine Greer, Ms Greer has, according to several newspaper reports, apparently labelled Murray Smith an 'insane reactionary', and her play as 'threadbare' in spite of not having seen it, well at least at the time of writing.
Feminist author and academic, Margot Mason is suffering from a serious bout of writer's block. Or, to be more accurate, she can't find a suitable title for her new book which is already anxiously awaited by her publishers. Author of 'The Cerebral Vagina' (among other feminist titles), Margot seems to have made a comfortable living for herself telling women how to live their lives. But the last thing she expects is for her voluminous advice to backfire on her. While she's waiting for inspiration to dawn, a student enters through her french windows and, after some initial polite exchanges, the student, Molly, produces a gun, handcuffs Margot to her desk and gags her.
After a while, Margot's daughter arrives in a state of nervous exhaustion and Margot hopes to be rescued from the clutches of the gun-toting student. But daughter Tess, who Margot has always despised, rallies to the side of the student and even encourages her to shoot her mother! However, before that happens, the men turn up. First is Bryan, Tess's caring and devoted husband, followed by Frank, the taxi driver who brought Tess to Margot's house, and finally Theo, Margot's publisher.
The first half of the play is extremely funny, in fact one of the funniest I have seen in some time. There are some brilliantly crafted lines such as when Margot describes someone as 'profoundly unhinged' or when she describes her french windows as 'stylish, thin and up themselves'. But when the male members of the cast start to arrive at Margot's home, it begins to lose it's razor-sharp edge, and the humour is by no means as strong or natural. If Ms Murray Smith had been content to focus on the three women alone, I think she might have had a more consistent play and one that would have been truly exceptional. Even as it is, there are a number of great comic moments - not all of which are related to feminism. For example, when the women realise that Tess has left her kids alone, there's a very witty discussion about emailing the police.
Dame Eileen Atkins is in exceptional form as the self-obsessed, aloof writer who really doesn't care tuppence for anyone but herself. She certainly doesn't mince words - even her second word of the play is an expletive - but she's equally at home firing off derisory comments about anyone and everyone. Dame Eileen's Margot can't really remember much of what she has written, and doesn't take responsibility for the effects her work has had on anyone else. Anna Maxwell Martin, is the nervy and nerdy student, Molly, who seeks retribution for her mother's suicide, and Sophie Thompson is Margot's near-demented daughter who's been driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown through having to look after her three demanding young children.
Bordering on farce for much of its duration, 'Female of the Species' is nevertheless a very funny comedy which of course makes fun of a particular type of feminist. But is the central character meant to be Germaine Greer? Joanna Murray Smith says definitely not - but see it yourself and make up your own mind!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "An evening of wicked, educated and reactionary amusement." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The emphasis is on the jokes, of which there are many, commenting on personality, language, and culture." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The play is like a public meeting in which every speaker has 10 minutes to put their point of view.What I longed for was the cut-and-thrust of real debate and the joy of intellectual combat." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "I must admit that I laughed at some genuinely amusing lines, while acknowledging that the debate isn’t all that trenchant." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A cracking piece, part hostage drama, part satire, part outrageous farce."