Girls On Top

10 August 2011

Life and art intersected interestingly last night as I dodged the unofficial evening curfew imposed in London, currently paralysed and trembling with fear in the wake of three nights of citywide riots, and headed to see a revival of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls. This production, directed by the play’s original director, Max Stafford-Clark, originated in somewhere called Chichester (which I believe is somewhere in the provinces) and has transferred to the Trafalgar Studios, just off Trafalgar Square, once the site of violent anti-poll tax riots at the end of the Thatcherite era.  I’d ummed and aaahed a bit before going, largely because I didn’t want to repeat the disturbing experience I’d had the night before of walking home from the Tube station down deserted streets, seeing boarded up shop windows and feeling my stomach turning in knots every time I saw someone coming towards me wearing a hoodie. Thank God that my fellow theatregoer Marla Jane (herself a Top Girl) got grumpy at just the right time about the prospect of us missing out on preview tickets, giving me the sufficient degree of fear (of Jane) inspired motivation to go.

In times of civil strife, the theatre is often appealing as a place to escape from the troubles of real life. As it happens, the excellent excellent revival of this play seemed perfectly timed as a commentary on why we’re in the messy state we’re in. My only fear is that the riots may frighten other theatregoers away from seeing the production, which deserves full houses and lively cultural debate to follow.

Top Girls is a striking mix of magical realism, razor sharp satire and stony-faced kitchen sink drama, played out in three contrasting, deliberately jolting acts. Act I is probably Churchill’s most famous set-piece, a dazzlingly unconventional dinner party hosted by Marlene, a frosty and highly successful single career girl (played with sharp intelligence by Suranne Jones, who Marla Jane tells me was recently on Dr Who and is shaping up to be a hot performer to watch). To celebrate her promotion to managing director of an employment agency, Marlene invites not her friends or family (more on them later), but a pageant of marginally famous (and infamous) women from history: Isabella Bird, the 19th century travel writer; Pope Joan, the woman who, as legend has it, disguised herself as a man and made it all the way to the top job in the Vatican; Lady Nijo, the 13th century Japanese concubine and memoirist; Dull Gret, the subject of a painting by Breughel, who supposedly lead a mob of women into Hell and raided the place; and Patient Griselda, the dutiful wife from one of Boccaccio and Chaucer’s more sadistic stories about female patience and loyalty. As Marlene snaps her fingers at the silent waitress who brings 80s minimalist haute cuisine on oversized plates and endless bottles of wine, the characters relate their various histories, get messily drunk, and progressively more maudlin as they realise they’ve all been the victims of male cruelty and prejudice.

As witty and inventive as the dinner scene is, trying to follow the action ties your brain into knots. Churchill’s writing debunks the 70s feminist myth of women listening respectfully to each other in a shared circle: the characters are locked in competition and frequently speak or yell over one another, forcing the audience to try and listen to two or more monologues simultaneously. The overall impression is of the richness and variety of women’s experience through history, but Churchill ups the ante by suggesting that women may not always listen to or be respectful of each other’s viewpoint. Great merriment and discomfort is creating by watching the characters itching to want to judge each other for submitting to the patriarchal norms of their age. It’s a riotously funny scene, and echoes of the women’s experience resonate cleverly in the scenes that follow.

Act 2 follows a more recognisable, realist style, as we meet Angie, a troubled and not especially clever teenage girl living in a grim part of rural Somerset with her deeply unhappy working class mother, Joyce, who hovers between anxious mother-hen protectiveness and open antagonism towards her. It turns out that Joyce is Marlene’s older sister, and that Angie is, in fact, Marlene’s daughter, whom she had as a teenager and who has been raised, somewhat resentfully, by Joyce. Angie dreams of killing her mother and escaping to London – she achieves the latter (but not the former), turning up in Marlene’s sterile minimalist office, just in time to see Marlene coolly despatching the wife of the man who she’s been promoted over. There are some brutally funny scenes of Marlene and her pussy posse of big-haired career girls bloodlessly dissecting and condescending to a series of clients, all of them secretaries anxious to somehow change their lives. The act’s final line – Marlene saying of the sleeping Angie that “She won’t make it” – falls like a guillotine blade. In the woman-powered revolution of the 1980s, there appears to be no mercy for the vulnerable.

The final, emotionally devastating act, plays out like one of Ibsen’s hangovers. Churchill pushes us back in time by a year, replaying Angie’s excited reconnection with her “Aunty Marlene”, and features a sustained, brutal and deeply painful argument between Joyce and Marlene: Joyce, resentful of Marlene’s success and angrily dismissive of the Thatcherite me-philosophy which she fears will leave Angie behind, and Marlene, playing out complex feelings of guilt about evading family responsibility and relief at escaping a grim existence, arguing equally as fiercely for the rights of the individual. To Churchill’s great credit, the argument is unresolved, and the sisters are left estranged from each other as the play closes. A final appearance of Angie, confused and frightened as she wakes from a nightmare, is a grim reminder that Marlene’s “She won’t make it” prediction at the end of Act 2 is probably going to be true. Unlike Steel Magnolias and most of the other cultural products of first-wave feminism that focused on girly bonding and messages of self-empowerment, Top Girls finishes on a far more difficult, and realistically human note.

Top Girls was premiered in 1982 at the Royal Court Theatre, home of earnest and politically didactic left-wing theatre like John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, and to some of the more hair-raising socialist experiments of the stage, including Edward Bond’s Saved and Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking. Obviously I wasn’t at the premiere (I was 7 at the time, and living in rural New Zealand), and I first encountered Top Girls as a semi-canonical piece of feminist writing – and, indeed, a set text on a paper I did on Contemporary Women’s Literature. As transmuted through our academic studies, Top Girls was one of the cornerstones of anti-Thatcherist thought, supposedly dramatising the betrayal of 1970s feminism by a scary new generation of individualistic career-obsessed working women who’d abandoned the Sisterhood for material success. Whereas the dream of first-wave feminism was a world transformed by women taking power, the nightmare of the 80s was the revelation that women in power simply replicated the aggression and competition they’d learned from the patriarchy they were replacing.

Almost 30 years later, I expected that the play would read as a period piece, and be somehow dated, or simply play as a retro satire about the ghastliness of shoulderpadded powersuits, brick sized mobile phones and helmet hair. Although the references in the final act to Thatcher taking power obviously do date the writing, it plays with remarkable freshness and verve. It’s perhaps helped by the fact that Britain in 2011 is strikingly similar to the Britain of 1982 – a Conservative government in power, an economic recession, rising oil prices, social welfare cuts on the way, and public disagreement over the country’s involvement in an unpopular foreign war. Interestingly, though, the politics of the play, and the supposed stridency of the anti-Thatcherite message, read somewhat differently. Although Joyce still angrily bellows “What good’s first woman if it’s her?”, Marlene’s counter-argument, that Thatcherism created a political model allowing women like her to get ahead, carries just as much weight.

Such, it seems, is the benefit of hindsight. Whereas Churchill’s first audiences would have seen a grim prophesy of what was to follow, we see a decade that we have since lived through, and the political legacy of late 20th century capitalism that we are still living in. We’re now far enough away from the early 1980s coalface to see that both Joyce and Marlene were right. Thatcherism did dessimate the British working classes and close down “traditional” industries of agriculture, manufacturing and mining, leaving millions of people unemployed and unemployable. Then again, her regime also allowed for unprecedented numbers of women to enter the professional classes and achieve wealth and success.

Ultimately, I think Churchill comes down on the side of Joyce, who realises that the 80s will be kinder to ambitious, clever, ruthless Marlene than they will be to confused and unsophisticated Angie. But then again, Churchill lobs in enough evidence of Joyce’s terrible parenting – continually telling Angie she’s stupid and occasionally even calling her a “little cunt” – for us to see that she’ll have more influence in reinforcing the low expectations about Angie’s future than Thatcher’s policies will. Had Angie had another mother – Marlene, perhaps? – Angie could have made something of herself. But in the end, both Angie’s birth and adopted mothers fail her. Is that the fault of Thatcherism? Perhaps, perhaps not, and again, it’s to the credit of Churchill’s writing, and some carefully calibrated performances (especially Jones, and House of Idiot… sorry, House of Eliot alumni Stella Gonet as Joyce) that the complexities of the characters are allowed to breathe.

Whether this complexity was ever evident from the original production, I’ll never know, but I’m pleased that, in my mind, anyway, Top Girls has been rescued from the straitjacket moniker of “anti-Thatcher feminist missive” and been revealed as a work that’s genuinely ready to engage with the complexities of feminism, without making glib judgments or resorting to easy answers.

The lack of easy answers seemed especially relevant on a night where rioting teenagers – the grandchildren of the Thatcherite generation – set fire to buildings and trashing department stores all over the city. As I read the various socio-political commentaries on the riots in the various newspapers – from the predictably hand-wringing platitudes of the Independent, explaining the riots as the inevitable result of political policies that disenfranchise the poor, to the “hang em high” pronouncements of the tabloids, advocating with various levels of ridiculousness, longer prison sentences and the return of compulsory military service to straighten out the errant youths of “Broken Britain” – I found myself unable to identify exactly where I stand politically. Like most children of the Thatcher era who got the benefit of a functional welfare state health and education system, and then joined the ranks of the professional classes and made a lot of money working in an aggressively capitalist economy, I can see the pluses of the free market just as clearly as I can see the people it leaves behind; then again, I’m reluctant to return to the patchouli-drenched idealism of socialism either, which seems to flatten out individuality, on which most of my adult identity as a homo is based. All in all, I’m deeply ambivalent as to whether I’m a chardonnay socialist, a crypto-fascist or just a consumerist whore. I suspect I’m some combination of all three, and perhaps need to accept confusion and ambivalence as part of my generation’s legacy.

And with that in mind, I’m relieved to have seen a play like Top Girls, in which Caryl Churchill seems to have thought about all of these things, and given every dog (or bitch) his or her due. In Jean Renoir’s delicious film La Règle du Jeu (an influence for Julian Fellowes’ script for Gosford Park), one of the otherwise nasty aristocrats says, “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” At the risk of sounding like a terribly retro tweed-wearing liberal humanist, I think this is one of the greatest things writers and artists can aim for: to show us why we do the things we do, even if it all ends in a screaming drunken brawl at a dinner party.

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