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Review: ‘The Writer’ dives deep into power dynamics and the human psyche

The Writer is an intriguing play written by English writer Ella Hickson. What makes it intriguing is that it is both complex and simple, aggressive and yet poetic. It is an allegory, designed to expose and ridicule the insidious power structures that exist in the world of theatre. 

While it is confronting play, it is also peppered with excruciating funny moments and, dare I say it, uses stereotypes to make its point. 

Its first scene is raw and angry. A young writer (Ash Williams) confronts the director (Matt Whelan) by unleashing an excoriating polemic against his latest work, accusing him of creating something that is vulgar, lazy and chauvinistic. 

Two lines indicate exactly the target Hickson has in sight with this scene and indeed the play:

Director: “How did you know it had a male director?”  

Writer:  “I watched the show”

The scene has brilliantly written dialogue that is bitingly funny. The young writer is full of righteous anger at the way women, sex, and violence are portrayed on stage. He is unprepared for her damning critique, and can only retort weakly or with flirtatious flattery. 

The premise then is set, it is the male patriarchy that is what is wrong with this world. It is men who have twisted ethics that value money and power over authenticity. Women as artists must compromise to make headway. 

As the play progresses it appears as though we are witnessing two realities. One, sees a frustrated playwright (Sophie Henderson), locking horns with a jaded producer (Stephen Lovatt) over the creative and commercial imperatives of her play. The other reality is a ‘play within a play’ where we see scenes from the playwright’s creation being acted out while being observed by the producer to one side. Often it is difficult to discern which of these realities we are seeing at any given time, but that actually works to the play’s advantage as it seems to intensify the themes Hickson is exploring.  

At the heart of the play then is this tension between commerce and artistic expression and the notion that existing power structures demean and exploit the roles of women in theatre. 

When women are allowed to deliver what is truly in their hearts, then real authentic drama can exist. This is powerfully shown in a scene in which Sophie Henderson (as the writer) delivers a long and powerful monologue shortly after discovering something new about her sexuality. It is poetic and lyrical. Yet it seems to sit outside the rest of the play, quite different in essence from anything we have seen so far. 

The message seems clear. Give women the freedom to explore their art without the shackles of the patriarchy and wondrous things will spring from it. 

But of course, this is theatre, and nothing is quite as simple as that. 

The Writer is actually exploring something much deeper – the fundamental nature of power on the human psyche, not just the male. 

This play manages to show us that while existing power structures are damaging and need to be confronted, sometimes, in winning the battle, revolutionaries repeat the original offenses. After going on a long journey with characters excoriating the patriarchy we discover that power dynamics, selfishness, and even sexual violence are not the exclusive preserve of men.

The Writer is not flawless, but it is a stunningly performed piece of theatre that should make all of us think about the power dynamics within our society in which we are all complicit. 

THE WRITER 1-18 September 2022

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