Review - The Writer at the Almeida Theatre, starring Romola Garai
OK, Ella Hickson's new play is meant to make you feel uncomfortable - not least if you're a man and you're involved in the theatre, and a critic to boot. It should carry a police warning: anything you say has been written down and may be used as evidence against you. In the midst of a climate where both behaviour and the words we speak and write are being rigorously policed and interrogated, this restless, relentless play has serrated teeth with countless traps for a male critic to stumble into.
And it may well be that, in the wake of Max Stafford-Clark and others who've already been exposed in the previously insular world of British theatre, and Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein in the wider public consciousness, that time of reckoning is long overdue.
So the Almeida, under artistic director Rupert Goold, is once again truly plugged into the zeitgeist, and admirably self-critical as it gives house room to a play that questions the (supposedly) liberal norms under which a theatre like it operates, the opportunities it denies women and freely gives to men. (There's even a supremely self-referential moment when an aspiring writer is being questioned by its director on her anger about what she's just seen on that stage, and she cites a play that is obviously Posh - written by Laura Wade, who is the partner of Sam West and is playing the director here).
The play is a Pirandellian hall of mirrors that constantly throws down the gauntlet about the theatre itself and the personal costs and ambitions of making it. Just how much of this sort of meta-reality an audience is prepared to take, though, depends ultimately on how far in the club they are. Mamma Mia! or Tina this isn't.
But Hickson is also asking big, bold questions about the commodification and compromises of making art, and is deliciously served by a supremely artful production by director Blanche McIntyre that teases and taunts its audience with different layers of reality and poetic licence. Binding it all together is a ferociously impassioned and intelligent performance from Romola Garai as the anxious, idealistic writer of the title. This confrontational production, played straight through in two hours, is frequently uncomfortable viewing, but as played by a cast that also includes Sam West, Michael Gould and Lara Rossi it is also never dull.