I’ve recently directed a production of Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte which is considered by many to be quite misogynist (mistakenly so in my opinion). As with every piece of art that I make I set out to tell a more feminist story, as one reviewer put it ‘subtly feminist‘, though I suppose really I just set out to tell a human story where every character was a real person with whom we could empathise and feel some compassion.
Last week I was lucky enough to get tickets to the press night of Maria Friedmans’ production of High Society at the Old Vic (my husband Will is the Associate Lighting Designer) and it felt very much like she had achieved a similar thing. It’s a gorgeous production in so many ways – full of the kind of clever, playful and imaginative theatricality that I love – but more importantly it completely humanises the characters, especially the women, in a way that makes the piece unexpectedly emotionally powerful. It would be very easy to simply enjoy the glossy silliness in such a piece but, and this is also testament to Kate Fleetwood’s astonishing performance, Maria has created something much richer, more emotionally complex and human with all the female characters (even the chorus, especially the chorus) presenting them all as strong, powerful women. Sure, they still have sexy, swooshy skirts but hey this is 2015 feminism – we’re allowed to wear what we like, right?
Female artists by no means have a monopoly on compassion and there are plenty of male theatre directors who are adept at that same humanising – David Mercatali is a great example. But it strikes me – perhaps because there are fewer female directors working at the top, in opera and musical theatre particularly – that we have an amazing opportunity with such productions to tell these subtly feminist stories and reach the kind of audiences (especially young audiences for whom musicals are often their entry point into live performance) who are perhaps less likely to make a trip to a fringe theatre for some bra-burning rant. Of course I also love those bra-burning rant-y shows – do they even exist? – and there is definitely a place for overt Feminist theatre (note the capital) but as with Political theatre with a capital ‘P’, there can be a danger of preaching to the converted. What’s so exciting about these subtly feminist productions is that you’re not being hit over the head with it – so here’s to seeing more women artists at the top, getting the opportunity to re-tell the old tales with subtlety and humanity… and a glitter drop.