Book Review: Feminist Theatre Then and Now: Celebrating 50 Years

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Editor: Cheryl Robson

Does theatre still need feminism 50 years on? It is a resounding yes from every contributor to Cheryl Robson’s edited volume Feminist Theatre Then and Now: Celebrating 50 Years which acts as a compendium of voices, approaches and experience within the industry from the 1970s to the present day. Part history of feminist companies and influences, part state of the sector declaration, this enormously important and often entertaining book is filled with the perspectives of women from multiple generations all pulling in the same direction, all of whom have made an important difference to how women and women’s stories are treated on and off stage.

Robson’s comprehensive and inclusive approach makes space for almost all aspects of theatre performance and creation, from producers like Maeve O’Neill to writers April de Angelis and Rukhsana Ahmad, as well as technicians, company managers, actors, academics and directors. And while Feminist Theatre Then and Now is critical of the white, patriarchal structures that continue to confine women creatives today, the book is a celebration of the roles that women have played in shaping what we see on stage. There may still be a long way to go but it is edifying to read about the women who worked hard to lift each other up while still delivering high-quality productions.

The interview and essay structure of the book makes its near 300 pages easily digestible and the editor has quite carefully avoided a chronological structure. The intermingled ‘then’ and ‘now’ approach works remarkably well, a continual reminder of how past, present and future are feeding into one another all the time. While the book is strong on the impacts of earlier feminist theatremakers, the very similar or partially evolved restrictions that today’s women are still facing are given equivalent weight.

It becomes a meaningful arrangement in which a wide range of voices are heard without singling out or forgetting eras or areas of the industry, making room for everything from clowning to lesbian theatre, exploring how all forms of feminist theatre from West End platforms to grassroots activism always blends the political and the personal onstage and off.

Sue Hill in Sea Cry Saga a coproduction with Creation Theatre_Photo Meier Williams

The message for contemporary creatives of any gender and for audiences is startlingly consistent across the contributors – a more reflexive work environment is needed to support men and women with childcare obligations, the dominance of white, male Artistic Directors at major venues needs to change (many welcome the appointment of Indhu Rubasingham at the National Theatre) and the inclusion of only one work by a woman writer per season as a token gesture needs to be addressed.

There are differences between the contributors – and quotas in particular divide opinion – but the collective power of this book and the achievements of the women working within and for the theatre ecosystem are strongly conveyed. Reading about the many and varied ways that feminist theatre is making a contribution makes this an interesting and significant reflection on the women and the work that must continue to shape the future of theatre.

Feminist Theatre Then and Now: Celebrating 50 Years released by Supernova Books on 16 May.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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