Top Girls – Alice Livingstone and Caryl Churchill and the real dilemma facing modern women. (Theatre review)
The question of women “having it all” was never terribly relevant to 1960’s feminism, which was asking the far more radical question of how do women use their new voice to DE-centralize power and DE-stabilize hero-objectivism? Given how shocking this idea is, it is no surprise women were “tossed the bone” of equality in the work place and encouraged to stand up for themselves and pursue the “right to be happy”, enticing them with the same trinkets that had seduced men for years; money and a semblance of power. It’s also no surprise two of the strongest voices for this version of capitalism that promoted hero-objectivsm were women, and very successful women in very male worlds. One was Margret Thatcher, and the other was Ayn Rand, both showing open disdain for females (especially feminists) and both extolling the virtue of “hard (white collar) work” in the pursuit of happiness for the individual. Feminism was faced with a complex debate in the 1970’s and the 1980’s. Do women follow the path of men in order to become fully functioning members of society, or do they try for something completely different?
Enter Caryl Churchill and her intelligent play Top Girls, first produced in 1982. That same year Thatcher led Britain to victory in a war in the Falklands, a coup given her lack of popularity. Thatcher had reduced inflation from 10.3% to 4.6% and this she achieved by doubling unemployment from 1.5 million to 3 million. The questions for women, as they were gaining some foothold on their ability to impact the world around them, was which path should they travel down? Thatcher had introduced monetary policy to Great Britain, at the expense of the workers in the factories and immigrants who came to Britain in the 50’s and 60’s to do low paid jobs. Churchill cleverly transposes Thatchers ideals into her main character Marlene, who is rising to the top of a recruitment firm (ironic given Thatcher’s removal of so many jobs) and ruthlessly stripping humanistic concerns from her own life. Marlene is Thatcher, complete with turning her back on her own heritage, which was with the working and lower white middle class. At the time, Top Girls was considered one of the most virulent anti-Thatcher plays. And there was stiff competition for that title.
But what Alice Livingstone has done by bringing this iconic play to life in the year 2013, is highlight Churchill’s prediction of the “me” era. Simmering underneath all the economic growth is a perverse admiration for the self made (wo)man. Here is where the Randian aspects of the play are highlighted and seen through twenty-twenty hindsight, remarkably astute warnings about the foolishness of following a certain prescribed version of freedom. The group, the collective, abandoned with communism is left to pick up all the slack with none of the reward, for in order for there to be a highlighted “me” there must be a platform of an anonymous “us.”
The first scene is a prophetic lo9ok at history in a dreamscape surreal kind of circular event that sees five controversially “famous” women in history get together for a meal in a restaurant hosted by Marlene. The women are all mythologized in history and may or may not have existed in reality, and yet when they tell their stories over dinner, they are brought to a very vibrant life. The bonding is in the sacrifice, successful women don’t have wives. The women begin the dinner by celebrating Marlene, and drinking to their great successes, and end it drunk, wailing and vomiting for lost children, lost lovers, lost family and lost souls. It is never a possibility that these women might have been happy as wives (one of them became Pope for heavens sake) but rather that success had to come at so great a price. The role woman plays when she acts wife and mother is to spare a man that pain. Marlene sits among the great women of yesteryear, and celebrates her achievements.
The next couple of scenes are more true to life, a version of a backward and forward realism. When Marlene goes back to visit her sister, still trapped in the families old way of life because she is supporting and caring for family, we discover how much Marlene has given up in order to be a career woman. In fact, her path has been almost identical to the women she drank with in the first scene. Marlene tries to give presents and money to the proud and intelligent Joyce but Joyce is sickened by the way her sister has come to determine value. Joyce, never attracted to the world Marlene wants and lives in, feels unsupported, unappreciated and unloved. The most chilling character becomes Angie, a very young girl repulsed by Joyce’s integrity and dazzled by Marlene’s money and success. The problem with hero worship is more worshipers are needed than heroes and no one sees themselves as a worshiper. It is only by stealing the success from others, that reluctant worshipers are made and true success can exist.
None of the complex layers could be seen in this marvelous play were it not for Alice Livingstones visionary direction, her astounding cast and the brilliance of the creative team. Its an all girl affair this one, the program acting as a loving tribute to our now ex first female Prime Minister and other great women that inspire the team behind the production. On the night I attended, the cast got a much deserved triple ovation as we the audience just couldn’t stop clapping. Everyone in this production is great from Julia Billington as Marlene through to Gina Rose Drew’s astonishing and concise costumes. The talented Claudia Barrie slides effortlessly between playing Dull Gret a formidable warrior who will take on the Devil himself, to Angie, a girl in her early teens trapped between expectation and hope. Sarah Aubrey is mesmerizing as three of the plays more difficult roles Pope Joan, Marlene’s abandoned anti-Thatcherite sister Joyce and Mrs Kidd, a woman fighting for her husbands job while he is laid up in bed. It is impossible to take your eyes off Aubrey when she is on the stage, so potent is her presence. Or perhaps Livingstone brings this out in women, because everyone is at their best here in a play that is worthy of it.
Top Girls is playing at the New Theatre in Newtown now. Grab your tickets here. All images © Bob Seary