The FT’s photographer Victoria and I are waiting in the Donmar Warehouse’s new bare brick and timber offices in central London. Already there is the strange sense of life imitating art. Victoria is here to photograph Sinéad Cusack and Abi Morgan, the star and the author respectively, of Splendour, a play in which a woman photojournalist waits to photograph someone. Except that Victoria is more relaxed than her fictional counterpart in the play, as well she might be.
Splendour, first seen at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 2000, is set in an eastern European palace and the photographer’s subject is a nameless dictator who not only keeps the photographer (Genevieve O’Reilly) waiting, but also his wife Micheleine (Cusack), her best friend (Michelle Fairley) and the photographer’s interpreter Gilma (Zawe Ashton).
As the play switches between each character’s perspective, the sounds of street violence grow nearer as the regime implodes, and each woman’s relationship to tyranny — whether reporting on it, living under it or being married to it — becomes clearer.
“I don’t think I consciously set out to write about four women waiting for a man,” says Morgan when we gather for lunch with Cusack and the play’s director Robert Hastie.
“The original idea was that I wanted to place four women on a border. Not only literally — on the border of a revolution — but also on the point at which power shifts. It came out of observing a number of strong women who had gone through complex, tough marriages to difficult leaders: the Imelda Marcoses, Hillary Clintons of this world. And the wife of [Nicolae] Ceausescu. When you watch their trajectory you come to realise that they were not just instrumental to the strength of that marriage but also in the politics of the marriage.”
Morgan wrote Splendour before her own trajectory took her career to stratospheric levels. Her 2007 screen adaptation of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane was followed by Shame (co-written and directed by Steve McQueen); The Iron Lady (with Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher) and The Invisible Woman (directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens).
And then there is her latest screenplay, Suffragette, due for UK and US release in October, which stars Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst with Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff and Helena Bonham Carter. It is hard to imagine anyone better suited to writing about suffrage than Morgan, who has made a career of dramatising the female condition. Although even she admits she found it “hard to get into the head of inequality”.
“What really affected me was reading the testimonials of women: a fishwife from Bethnal Green or a laundry worker, and the amount of women deemed unfit to keep their own children because they asked: ‘Why can’t we have the vote too?’ I find that quite motivating — to feel the pain and sorrow — not to indulge myself in it, but just write it.”
Although Splendour was written 15 years ago, it shares common themes with Suffragette. Both are concerned with women’s relationship to power; both focus on female characters during a moment of immense political change.
And the ripples of the suffragette movement are still being felt: during a Donmar outreach trip before the UK general election, Hastie interviewed eight and nine-year-olds about democracy. “We spoke to a girl in Wales and asked: ‘If you were old enough, would you vote?’” he says. “‘Oh yes,’ she said. Why? ‘Well, because of the suffragettes, the railings and the horses. You’ve got to because of all that bother’.”
“I was concerned by the title Suffragette,” says Morgan, who thinks that girl isn’t typical. “There is a whole generation that doesn’t know what a suffragette is.” Cusack incredulously shakes her head. For Morgan, physically small yet aware of her increasing power as this country’s most sought-after writer for screen and stage, the path to keep women’s stories alive seems clear. Even if, in the case of the women in Splendour, those stories aren’t so conspicuous.
“I have always had a fascination with the women who have stood at the side, behind, sometimes in front of powerful men,” says Cusack. “I’ve wondered about their complicity, their refusal to acknowledge what their husband is doing. The one that strikes me forcibly at the moment is [the Syrian first lady] Asma al-Assad. When I see a photograph of her I think: ‘How are you psychologically, emotionally and even physically responding to the events that your husband is responsible for?’ I’ve always had a sneaking desire to play Richard III. This is the closest I’ve ever come.”
The political landscape has changed somewhat since Morgan wrote the play. I suggest the most powerful people grappling with the Greek crisis, for instance, are women: Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde. “Yes,” agrees Morgan. “And when someone like Hillary Clinton comes out of the shadow of her husband to run for her own presidency, it’s a mark of how things have changed. It’s the same in the arts. If you look at how many London theatres are now run by women: Josie Rourke [artistic director of the Donmar], Vicky Featherstone [the Royal Court] and businesswomen: [Facebook’s] Sheryl Sandberg. There’s been a shift in power across the decade.”
Nevertheless, a recent study showed that only one-third of new plays staged in British theatres are by women. Only a quarter of all writing is by women. In that sense, Splendour, which is not only written by a woman but populated entirely by female characters, is a rarity. Morgan has said she wants to challenge the gender imbalance, although the play wasn’t written with that in mind.
“I’m a woman and I’m interested in writing stories from a female perspective. But I do feel a huge responsibility to write these stories, I feel it more consciously now. I’ve just done a TV drama [River, an upcoming BBC series] and although it’s got two or three very strong female characters, the lead [played by Stellan Skarsgard] is still a man.”
“It’s rare that you’re allowed a full exploration of a woman’s journey,’ agrees Cusack. “Very often it is in relation to the male. And I’ve played some great roles: Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, but even with ‘the great playwright’ very often women’s reactions and behaviours are as a result of male actions and not the other way round . . . I’m always on the lookout for a journey that is complex and multi-faceted. And a woman’s.”
“I hate to say it,” says Morgan, “but four years ago someone asked me: ‘Are you a feminist? And I said ‘Oh I don’t like to use that term’. Now I would say I’m absolutely a feminist writer.”
Why now and not then? “Partly it was being exposed to the idea that in the west I don’t need to be a feminist. I have equality. I’m the breadwinner. But when you see in this country and every other part of the world the huge pay disparity — in Hollywood, in every profession in the UK globally — and you see what is happening to women in every country socially and culturally, you can’t not be a feminist.
“There are so many actresses I want to write for. I see them and I think: ‘Why is she not playing that lead? What’s happened to that actress?’ I think all I can do is to write parts for women, to say: ‘Keep going, keep acting, because there are parts for you. There will be those plays’.”
‘Splendour’, Donmar Warehouse, London, from July 30, donmarwarehouse.com
‘Suffragette’ is released in the UK, US and Ireland in October
Photographs: Victoria Birkinshaw; Johan Persson; Steffan Hill