Theatre and #MeToo: 'There's a new anger in women's stories'


Katie Arnstein tells a story of a day at drama school when a tutor told her to perform her graduation show in a bra “because I’m a blonde with a big chest”. It is one of several experiences that informed Arnstein’s solo show Sexy Lamp, performed at the Edinburgh fringe this month. The title comes from writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s theory that, if you can replace a female character with a lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.

Arnstein wrote her play, which features shocking revelations about auditions and casting call notices, because she felt so galvanised by the #MeToo movement that followed the numerous allegations of rape and sexual assault levelled at Harvey Weinstein since 2017. (Allegations he continues to deny in the run-up to his trial in September.) “I was inspired by the strength shown by people who have called out abuse in the acting industry,” Arnstein says. “This play is my version of the #MeToo story, my journey of being an actor and the challenges I continue to face because of my gender.”

She is not alone in putting abuse on the stage. Several playwrights have taken on the Weinstein story directly, treating the allegations in imaginative and sometimes incendiary ways. Among the first was David Mamet, known for his preoccupation with power and its abuse, often refracted through lethally predatory masculinity in his plays. He announced in early 2019 that he was working on Bitter Wheat, a “dark farce” starring John Malkovich as a shamed movie mogul called Barney Fein, who has uncanny similarities to Weinstein.



Shocking revelations … Katie Arnstein in Sexy Lamp. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Bitter Wheat landed with a thud this summer in London. But Steven Berkoff beat Mamet to the first, no-holds-barred play enacting the story from the predator’s perspective with Harvey, a scrappy 45-minute monologue that was still being workshopped when it was performed in February at the Playground theatre in London. In a static performance, Berkoff sat in the centre of an almost bare stage wearing tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt. Delivering a monologue that was part-confession, part-justification of his acts, Berkoff’s narcissistic, misogynistic character attempted to implicate the women who met him in hotel rooms. The monologue was interspersed with bilious summaries of abusive encounters, from hotel-room assaults to grim masturbatory episodes.

The staging of Mamet and Berkoff’s dramas raised questions of timing and sensitivity. Did we want to be inside the head of a sexual predator at a time when the unheard stories of women, and victims, were beginning to be dramatised?

Other directors and playwrights mobilised plans of action to foreground women’s perspectives. Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court, curated Snatches, a series of monologues for BBC4 with an all-female lineup of writers, directors and actors. Among them was Compliance, a drama written by Abi Morgan about a young female actor meeting a senior producer in a hotel bedroom to “run through a scene”. Its lead was played by Romola Garai, who was among the first women to speak out about Weinstein, describing an audition that took part in his hotel room at the Savoy when he opened the door to his room dressed in just a bathrobe. Garai, 18 at the time, reflected on how it left her feeling “violated” but that such behaviour was accepted in an industry that was “very very very misogynistic”.

There were signs of a reckoning for silenced women from the past, too, the most prominent of which was Emilia, co-produced by Nica Burns, in which Morgan Lloyd Malcolm dramatised the life of Emilia Bassano, a poet and contemporary of William Shakespeare who, Lloyd Malcolm argues, was the unacknowledged inspiration for his plays. Commissioned in 2016, it was written after the Weinstein case made headlines, says Burns. “Emilia could not get published in her time because she was a woman. It’s all about women wanting their voices to be heard.”

Unacknowledged inspiration … Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm.



Unacknowledged inspiration … Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Rose McGowan, who alleges she was raped by Weinstein, performed a one-woman show at Edinburgh this month, taking the audience “on a healing journey of discovery”. More #MeToo plays by female writers are in the pipeline. Emily McLaughlin, head of new work at the National Theatre, speaks of an exceptional play in development by a writer “who has found a brilliant device to look at sexual abuse and harassment in the film industry”.

In the US, there has been an assortment of #MeToo-related dramas, including The Pussy Grabber Plays, inspired by the stories of women who had accused Donald Trump of sexual assault or harassment. Its co-creators, Kate Pines and Sharyn Rothstein, distilled their testimonies into drama. “I felt very much that the women who had come forward over Trump were the precursors to the women who came forward over Weinstein,” says Pines. “The stories about Trump had been largely ignored and relegated to a footnote of the elections.”

Natasha Stoynoff, a journalist whose story was dramatised in The Pussy Grabber Plays, thought it was important for her account to be preserved in a more complex way than she had seen it presented in news clips. “Kate and Sharyn wanted to go deeper into the women’s stories … We’d all become headshots flashed on a TV screen, like victims of a serial killer.” She hopes it might serve as a comfort to women in similar situations – and help men, too. “If even one man walks out of the theatre more aware of his own actions regarding women and boundaries, that’s progress,” she says.

‘Weinstein was brought down because change was happening’ … Vicky Featherstone.



‘Weinstein was brought down because change was happening’ … Vicky Featherstone. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Pines has reservations over Bitter Wheat. “I’m not interested in his perspective. The playwright Mathilde Dratwa has written A Play About David Mamet Writing a Play About Harvey Weinstein and, between the two, I’m much more tempted to see that.” Should men be telling women’s #MeToo stories at all? Of course, says Featherstone. “We can’t start censoring writers.” But she adds: “It is ironic that the only two plays which deal head-on with the predator are by two middle-aged men.”

Rothstein thinks this is symptomatic of imbalances in the industry. “The first major West End production of the #MeToo story is told by a white American male. This fact alone is indicative of a much deeper issue and the way in which the system is structured. It’s not that Mamet shouldn’t be writing about this incredibly topical issue. It’s that his play should not be the only one that gets staged in the West End. You need everyone’s perspective, including those of the survivors of abuse.”

Liv Warden’s play Anomaly, staged at the Red Lion theatre, London, in January, was about a fictional shamed media mogul. Warden made the decision not to have him appear on stage. He is a silenced character and his three daughters, who have to deal with the fallout of his misconduct, are the focus of her plot. “When [Weinstein] was arrested,” she says, “I saw that he had a wife and two young children. One of my first thoughts was about them and how this was going to change their lives. I wanted to show the grey area. There is not the victim-predator divide here and there are questions of why the women connected with these men didn’t say anything.”

But there are women in theatre who feel men’s stories about this subject deserve to be heard, too, as long as they are delivered responsibly. Priscilla Holbrook is part of a production that dramatises the lives of male sex offenders in a rural American community. America Is Hard to See, which was staged at the Edinburgh fringe, is set to music and lyrics composed by Holbrook and is an investigative theatre piece based on verbatim interviews. “We see the victims mainly through the men’s stories but this does not minimise them,” says Holbrook. What is essential for drama about sex abuse, she adds, is for it to be attuned to the prospect of retraumatising those who have experienced it. “You have to ask, ‘Does a piece of art retraumatise or does it nudge you to a bigger, expanded place?’”

Testimonies distilled into drama … The Pussy Grabber Plays.



Testimonies distilled into drama … The Pussy Grabber Plays. Photograph: Jenny Anderson

A hotel room scene in Bitter Wheat shows Malkovich’s character attempting to have coercive sex with a young actress. “It’s such an important scene,” says Burns. “I bet it’s quite an eye-opener for men because they don’t normally see what it’s like for her – or they profess not to.”

Yet Berkoff and Mamet’s dramas seemed so closely tethered to real events that they offer little insights beyond what we already know from news stories. “When something has been in the news, what does theatre add to it?” asks Featherstone. In recent years, she has seen “a new anger and fearlessness in women’s stories. And a sense of not needing to be liked or even a desire to create likable female characters on stage. The work that has been talked about since #MeToo was already in development before the Weinstein case. He was brought down because change was happening.”

Lynette Linton, artistic director of the Bush theatre, London, says the #MeToo movement was slow to embrace the stories of women of colour. “At the beginning, its focus was American white women,” she says.

These stories need to be told in all their intersectional complexity and fullness. Sexual harassment is a subject that’s simply not going to go away, says Burns: “I’m sure there will be more women writing these stories. Let’s not push them to do it too quickly.”

Sexy Lamp is at Upstairs at the Western, Leicester, 12-13 September. Bitter Wheat is at the Garrick theatre, London, until 21 September.



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