Feminism Made Funny

Germaine Greer has got it wrong: everyone should see The Female of the Species

Gender Politics Social Affairs Theatre

Successful plays about ideas tend to be by men. There are exceptions: Yazmina Reza, and Caryl Churchill if you like heavy-handed agitprop. Otherwise Messrs Stoppard, Hare, Frayn etc. have had few female competitors in the West End – until now. With The Female of the Species – a sparkling new comedy at the Vaudeville – Joanna Murray-Smith arguably joins that select band.

An old 1970s joke goes: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” Answer: “That’s not funny.” It’s not true that feminists are humourless, especially nowadays. But if you were looking for that steadfast refusal to be amused that was once associated with the women’s movement, you can certainly find it in the reviews that have greeted this play. Many of these reviews are actually by men of a certain age and they suggest that this lightweight but clever play has touched a sensitive generational and cultural nerve.

Of course, this play has achieved instant notoriety by being inspired by an unpleasant incident a few years ago when the writer Germaine Greer was taken prisoner in her own home by a deranged former student. Without seeing the play, Ms Greer has condemned the playwright, a fellow Australian, as an “insane reactionary”. On the evidence of the play at least, both charges are unfair.

It opens in the funky country house sitting room of sixtyish celebrity feminist Margot Mason (Eileen Atkins). The author of bestsellers with titles such as Madame Ovary and The Cerebral Vagina is fielding an anxious phone call from her publisher. As she ponders Clitorism and The Utopian Fallopian as titles for the new book she’s barely started, an awkward young woman comes in through the French doors. She’s Molly (Anna Maxwell Martin), a former student who has read everything Margot has ever published. Molly blames Margot for ruining her life, and she has a gun.

It seems that at various times during her career Margot has advocated promiscuity then celibacy, childlessness then motherhood and so on. When challenged by Molly about her responsibility to the women like her who have changed their lives on the basis of her contradictory declarations, she replies, sounding like a radical Noël Coward, “My deargirl, I am not a life coach. I’m a provocateur.”

Margot has been handcuffed to her desk when her grown-up daughter Tess (Sophie Thompson) turns up. Tess, who has suffered from Margot’s titanic selfishness for years, is provoked to take the side of hostage-taker rather than hostage. The trio is eventually joined by Tess’s wimpish but loving banker husband and then by a virile young taxi driver who has been desperately trying to behave like a post-­feminist new man. All of them have bones to pick with Margot. However, in the eruptions that follow, Margot gives as good as she gets, as you might expect from someone famous for aphorisms such as “for every child born a great novel goes unwritten”.

Margot is a wonderful role for Eileen Atkins. She relishes every delicious mouthful but resists all temptation to overdo it, to turn monstrous Margot into a crude cartoon.

Unfortunately, under the direction of Roger Michell, some of the supporting cast do occasionally cross the line. There’s something over the top in the way that Anna Maxwell Martin’s Molly stoops her shoulders and clutches her hands. We already know she’s nervous and a bit bonkers: the twitchy physical manifestations sometimes look too much like acting. The same goes for Sophie Thompson’s Tess. She’s also been broken by Margot’s egotism and she too is hunched and clumsy, her voice alternating between a mousy squeak and an enraged bellow. That said, both Maxwell Martin and Thompson possess the timing needed for farce, and when both characters experience an unexpected erotic awakening it’s charming and funny.

For almost all of its length, The Female of the Species is hilarious. To be sure, it is merely a farce – a lesser form that isn’t to everyone’s taste. But it’s a superb example of that form, superior to anything Alan Ayckbourn has written in recent years, and laced with deft and devastating satire. The audience laughed almost continuously for the full 100 minutes before cheerfully leaving for an early supper.

It isn’t clear if the critics who refuse to find the play funny are simply being loyal to Ms Greer or if they are keen to prove their right-on feminist bona fides. Both reactions are unnecessary. The play didn’t make me think any less of Ms Greer or her work (although her reaction to the play did), and only someone steeped in political correctness could take offense at its jokes. Indeed, one of the rare pleasures of The Female of the Species is the way it plays fair with all sides. Murray-Smith deftly pokes holes in every position – feminist, post-­feminist, old-­fashioned sexist or just plain confused about the gender wars – represented by her characters. Yet at the same time she allows them some dignity; there’s a humaneness and generosity at work in the play that you don’t often find in either satire or plays about ideas.

It’s telling that the angrier critics somehow failed to notice that the play isn’t in the least “reactionary”. Murray-Smith isn’t saying that women shouldn’t be in the workplace or receive equal pay for equal work. She isn’t claiming that sexism doesn’t exist. She just doesn’t have much time for all those gloriously solipsistic feminist writers who make grand pronouncements about women and society based only or mostly on their own lives, who condemn the “male gaze” but ruthlessly exploit their own sex appeal to get ahead.

Reading the critical response carefully, you begin to wonder if the real problem with this play is that its satire is directed incorrectly: Murray-Smith has simply made fun of the wrong targets. One doesn’t want to use the term “sacred cow” but it seems that it’s not appropriate to make fun of Germaine Greer, or feminism of a certain kind, or celebrity intellectuals, or even writers in general.

Perhaps we live in more conservative times than we like to think, and it’s only OK to mock the “establishment” if by that term you really mean the long-gone men who looked and sounded like John Cleese in Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. It’s a different story if you want to knock today’s hegemonic elite – the baby boomers who run the television channels, advertising agencies and publishing houses but still like to think they’re outsiders.

The unfair critical response to this extremely well-made and enjoyable play sounds like the whine of an establishment that wants to believe it isn’t one, an establishment made up of real-life Margot Masons who need to believe they are still young and rebellious, that there’s a stuffy bourgeoisie out there that needs to be shocked and challenged. The funny thing is that the new establishment has been challenged in a delightfully joky way by this play and apparently can’t take it.