Since the Almeida Theatre provides tantalisingly little information about The Writer’s plot, one wonders what tricks lie up its sleeve when embarking upon this two-hour, no-interval and no-readmissions theatrical journey.

Be warned: there are tricks aplenty. Ella Hickson’s wildly ambitious play, which follows a female writer trying to navigate her way through a perplexing patriarchal system, is host to twists, turns and so much fourth wall breaking that it will leave you itching to interrogate the very essence of art.

We start with two characters: a student (Lara Rossi) and a director (Samuel West). The student has just seen the director’s play, and has a lot to say about it. Eloquently attacking an industry which so persistently sees middle-aged, middle class (but more crucially, male and white) directors and producers exert their professional power over younger women with career aspirations, the student’s argument is visceral and tangible: she is the voice of a generation. Of course, the director purports to like her anger because it is ‘zeitgeisty’, and misses the point entirely.

Just as it’s all ticking along nicely, the scene ends abruptly and the actors hug. Another ‘director’, played by Michael Gould, and Romola Garai as the Writer herself enter the stage and sit down with the other actors, before engaging in an apparent Q&A with the theatre audience about what we have just witnessed. It is confusing to say the least, and the rest of the play continues in this complex meta-narrative vein.

But at the point where you think it has descended into the chaos of a pretentious series of art school performances, the play pulls itself together and unites these seemingly disorientating plot points. Garai is captivating as the Writer, whose personal and professional struggles we follow across the course of the play, and knits together its vast scope of themes.

The Writer is a postmodern triumph: innovative and engaging in both its form and plot, it is hard to recall another play which has explored Sapphic sex, artistic commitment and systemic prejudice in such a nuanced way. At one point, Gould’s director refers to the Writer’s work-in-progress as an ‘intellectual exercise’, and Hickson’s piece certainly feels like that. Thrillingly pertinent in more ways than one, this play is proof that the institution of theatre is taking risks – and that female writers and directors are well on their way to stomping through that glass ceiling.

The Writer runs at the Almeida Theatre until the 26 May 2018


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