On the set of Girls & Boys, there’s a Penguin clothbound edition of Middlemarch, which made me think rather obnoxiously about these words from it:
“One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea- but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?”
George Eliot was so bothered about the ineffectiveness of a single narrative that she interrupted her own sentence to make her point. She wanted to democratise her novel, drawing on as many narratives as possible to form her story.
Girls & Boys is the anti-Middlemarch.
In anticipation of Girls & Boys, I had a bit of a Carey Mulligan binge. I watched and re-watched as many of her films as I could, including – no – especially her episode of Doctor Who which scared the SHIT out of 10-year-old me and still holds up a decade and a bit later. I did this because she’s one of my favourite actors and she’s always brilliant. It seems to me, that in a career where she’s excelled playing supporting roles (Shame, Mudbound,) or larger roles where she’s heavily involved with another main character (An Education, The Great Gatsby,) she’s brilliant at making her character the single most interesting person in the story, drawing your interest towards whatever she’s doing, sometimes away from something or someone else, but in a way that never feels like pulling focus. She’s the only actor that made David Tennant’s Doctor look superfluous.
Maybe that’s what all great actors do. But I definitely notice it with her.
Girls & Boys is a monologue, and therefore she’s alone on the stage. There’s no one to draw focus from, nobody that she can comparatively be more interesting than – it’s just her. And that’s a feat in itself; 100 minutes she talks to us for, something like 15,000 words she’s learned. That alone always impresses me. And then the speed of it… I don’t know that there’s anything particularly sophisticated about learning a monologue but Christ it must be hard.
It’s a brilliant monologue, and Mulligan holds your attention for the whole damn thing. I’ve seen it twice, and both times I was riveted, from the first moment to the last. She’s extraordinarily compelling – and really fucking funny. That first speech plays more like stand up than anything else, and it’s brilliant to see her be unreservedly funny; she’s got brilliant timing and you can tell she enjoys playing with the audience – she’s a completely natural stage actor, the type of performer that makes you forget about the other 400 people in the room.
The rest of the play isn’t quite so funny. Fairly quickly you realise the humour is a coping strategy, and fairly quickly you sense that something isn’t right. And that simply intensifies and intensifies, ratcheting up the tension until she finally drops the bombshell. Which is what I’m going to talk about now. So yeah, spoilers.
Clearly, Girls & Boys is just about the best play to produce at this cultural moment, particularly at the Royal Court, which under the leadership of Vicky Featherstone has established itself as the theatre most respondent to the world outside. It grapples directly with male violence, and the way that men control the women in their lives, but it does so in an overtly feminist way, by exclusively presenting the Woman’s perspective. It’s ultimately very simple; no argument, no actor, no directorial intervention is likely able to make what the Man in question did feel rational, let alone justified. Why bother with what Michael Billington calls the ‘multi-faceted natured of drama’? What purpose would that serve other than to distract from the Woman?
I’m still dancing around it.
Does anyone really want to watch a play that attempts in some way to rationalise the actions of a Man that murders his own children because of his drive towards jealous, brutal, misogynistic violence? Really?
Instead, Dennis Kelly (a man!) gives us a monologue of mostly direct address; there’s nowhere for the audience to hide, the Woman is talking directly to us. That’s generally what direct address entails. She waits for us to laugh. She repeats things for emphasis. She’s particularly addressing, it seems to me, the men in the room. It’s as if she’s flirting with them. She’s smirking, she wants you to enjoy it. That first comedic chunk of the play lulls you/them/me into a false sense of comfort. I don’t mean security, because it is the Royal Court – which generally means at some point something awful is going to happen. And it does, sure enough.
Violence is an act. It is not a thought, it is not a something confined to a psychology textbook, it is something that one person does to another. About 40 years ago Laura Mulvey wrote about how in film, men are the active presence and women are passive (little has changed on that front.) But it does draw the link; violence is action, and action is coded male, therefore violence is (covertly, or overtly) male. When women in film commit violence, they are often masculinised, or androgenised. I wondered about that, as I watched Mulligan with her hair pulled back, in a shirt and trousers. She’s hardly the image of stereotypical femininity.
But of course, Girls & Boys is cleverer than a fucking theory. The Woman in the play doesn’t actually do anything. Even when she runs around with her (invisible) kids, she’s not actually doing anything. She’s just talking. She is not ‘masculinised’ by her circumstances, there is absolutely no phallic imagery here thankyouverymuch. She’s not rendered emotionless, but not overly-emotional. You get the sense of restraint. Of the capacity for fury but the choice to not give it physical form. She’s still, but not completely so. There’s control in her but not excessive tension.
The play’s feminism isn’t grounded in the emancipation of women, it’s grounded in the idea of patriarchy (maybe even the nuclear family) as an inherently violent structure. It’s in making that claim that the play feels horrifyingly contemporary. There’s a moment where the Woman describes how a school shooting in America (“a really bad one […] everyone was watching this unfold.”) leads to an argument between her and the Man, and you can practically hear the audience thinking about Parkland, about the numerous violent acts around the world committed by men. You can practically hear people think “how the fuck can you stop them?” It seems utterly impossible.
There’s a phrase that crops up a couple of times in the play: “you know what I mean?” The Woman is giving her side of the story and is absolutely determined to be understood, comprehended.
I am not going to be that dick that claims this is not a gendered question, because it obviously is. She will not be misinterpreted by the audience. But the Woman is also working class, thickly-accented, making bold points assertively. And with that comes a whole load of baggage – specifically, in a strangely ironic way, the fear of inarticulacy. The fear of not saying exactly what you mean and therefore not being taken seriously – because in this country, being inarticulate is often synonymous with being thick. She needs to be clear, she needs to be understood. But this is never explicit, it’s not like Mulligan asks that question with a lot of weight, it’s just played as a verbal tick. Because that’s what it becomes, an instinct to check that you’re being articulate, because God forbid you’re not.
I write about class a lot. Mostly I guess, because I’m obsessed by it. But also, because it very often feels like the thing that is glossed over. In the pursuit of an intersectional progressive theatre it is absolutely vital that the question of class is addressed. Girls & Boys does this in a way that I’ve not really considered, because I’m not sure I’ve seen it before, and that’s in the way it locates the language of working-class theatre with the aesthetic of the (ugh) ‘art’ theatre you see on a regular basis at the Almeida. The aesthetic of that which until now I’ve only seen as the realm of English queens, Danish princes and Roman politicians, all electric glass and sanitary floors and pastel walls that look like unfinished car parks – it is now the realm of a working-class woman. That felt significant, because now there’s a precedent. Now sure, the Woman in the play is inhabiting an upper-middle class world, and I can’t see a production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too using electric glass any time soon, but I think my point still stands.
When the aesthetic that is in fashion privileges a certain kind of story, namely one that doesn’t lose its potency when removed from its social context, there needs to be a conscious effort to reconcile the artistic and political potential of the theatre. The politics of posh white people can more easily be made abstract, because the politics of posh white people are presumed to be universal. It seems to me that the aesthetic perpetuated by Ivo van Hove et al privileges the abstract, and therefore the politics and narratives of posh white people. Girls & Boys demonstrates that this does not have to be the case – though that doesn’t mean everything now must fall into that aesthetic. Dear God, no thank you.
(Further tangent: is this conversation about aesthetic similar to the conversation about content and form? Does a focus on the reinvention of form privilege those stories already represented in terms of content? Does it matter when you chop Hamlet up into little pieces when the story of Hamlet exists anyway? In other words, when form advances, is it because we are satisfied with the content – even when that content is exclusive and non-diverse? Can reinvention of form and content coexist and be progressive? Is this even English?)
The first time I saw Girls & Boys I was overwhelmed by the technical bloody skill involved, by the lacerating precision of Kelly’s text, by the poise of Mulligan’s performance, by the gorgeousness of Es Devlin’s set, and the sheer bloody joy that the Royal Court exists.
The second time was profoundly more emotional. I became aware of more muffled sobs behind me in the audience. Mulligan’s restraint was slacker, the tears more visible, her voice cracking slightly more. It was another reminder of the volatility of live theatre.
Olivier Awards mean shit but in a world where they do this would be winning some.
Photo by Marc Brenner