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July 27, 2012 9:14 pm
At the back of the Royal Court Theatre bar is an enclave called the Ladies’ Room. It is an intimate underground space “surrounded by layers of history”, according to the theatre’s website. It’s here that I meet actress Tamsin Greig and playwright April De Angelis: a location that seems curiously appropriate as the conversation rolls forward.
We are here to talk about Jumpy, De Angelis’s latest play, which is laugh-out-loud funny and acutely observed. It is that rare beast: a drama with a lead character who is a 50-year-old woman. Hilary, played brilliantly by Greig, struggles throughout the play to keep several shows on the road: her job, her marriage, her body and her relationship with her 15-year-old daughter. “I’ve let go of too many things at once,” she says, pensively, at one point.
When Jumpy played at the Royal Court, you could hear gasps of recognition around the auditorium. De Angelis, who has a teenage daughter herself, assures us that the characters’ arguments are not replicas of her own – though she does admit to pinching one of her daughter’s lines.
They make a great double act, De Angelis, 52, warm and thoughtful, Greig, 46, irreverent and quick-witted. Greig (a familiar face from TV series such as Green Wing and Episodes) says she seized on the part, partly as a self-help guide for her own domestic life: “Our oldest is coming up for 14. That was one reason for doing the play: so I’m prepared, because we’re just about to hit the rapids.”
But while the play is very funny about the domestic arena as a hormonal battleground, the undertow can be poignant. De Angelis catches the bewilderment of a parent slowly bidding goodbye to a child and of a generation struggling to hang on to liberal principles in a changing world. Above all, she conveys the perplexing experience of ageing. As Greig points out, apparently throwaway comic lines draw on wells of feeling.
“I think comedy and tragedy are in adjoining rooms, not in different houses,” Greig says. “When Hilary says ‘I’ve let go of too many things at once’, it’s a small sentence on which you can hang a much deeper malaise. You think, ‘That is exactly it: that is what my tenderness feels like.’”
The play opens in the West End at a time when roles for women have come into the spotlight. The actors’ union Equity has flagged up the gender imbalance on stage, writing to subsidised theatres to discuss the issue and raising its concerns with Arts Council England. Julie Walters recently highlighted the lack of substantial parts for older women, while Janet Suzman has just written a book, Not Hamlet, subtitled “Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama”.
Director Marianne Elliott explained to me recently why she tends to favour plays with female protagonists. “There aren’t enough female stories out there,” she said. “There definitely aren’t enough older female stories out there. It’s as though suddenly you are silenced when you get into your forties, fifties, sixties.”
De Angelis tackles the problem head-on: not only is Jumpy written with two juicy parts for middle-aged actresses, but the character of Frances is an actress who is struggling to find work. “One reason for writing this play was that I wanted two women in their fifties on the stage,” De Angelis says. “There are so many fantastic actresses and not enough parts. That was deliberate.”
In Not Hamlet, Suzman laments that even among the greatest female roles in the canon there are few dramatic characters “given the full historical, nation-changing treatment”: few that scale the intellectual and metaphysical heights of, say, Lear or Hamlet. Some actresses have addressed this by playing the great male classical parts – Kathryn Hunter played Lear and Richard III, Fiona Shaw did Richard II, Sarah Bernhardt tackled Hamlet.
De Angelis is keenly aware of the dilemma: her drama Playhouse Creatures, about the experiences of the first actresses on the English stage, has just played in Chichester. But she suggests that with more female directors and playwrights in place, the balance is shifting.
We can’t change a theatrical canon that is the product of its times. But then I wonder whether De Angelis feels she ought to be writing about women in positions of influence in the contemporary public sphere, rather than concentrating, in Jumpy, on the domestic. She counters that the mistake is to see the public domain as more significant than the private.
“Is not bringing up a child, and then letting them go, one of the most important things?” she says. “It’s the most important thing in the world but of course it’s not seen as such. Well I’d say that’s good reason for doing the play.”
“That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to it,” adds Greig. “Hilary’s not a woman who has changed history, she’s a very ordinary woman.”
Greig herself is a superb, funny actress and looks great in a pair of jeans (whereas Hilary’s jeans are a point of ridicule for her daughter). But, even so, does she feel the pressure to look young? Does she fear the drop-off of roles as she gets older?
“I feel very blessed to have got this far. It [lack of parts] hasn’t been a fear. But I am conscious that that is the possible landscape ahead and I’d better get used to it. So,” she adds, turning to De Angelis, “you’d better just keep writing parts for women in their fifties and sixties and seventies.”
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