London theater: 'The Writer': Radical, potent exploration of writing, theater, and gender

Lara Rossi (left) and Romola Garai in "The Writer," through May 26 at the Almeida Theatre in London.

It's Pirandello with dildoes. Ella Hickson’s new play, The Writer, is about sex and about theatrical illusion/reality, and it’s about gender equality, and it’s about the passion of the creative artist.  A superb cast, directed by Blanche McIntyre, provides what the Almeida Theatre is famous for: radical, intellectual productions.

It begins when a young woman (Lara Rossi) returns to her audience seat to fetch a forgotten bag and the director (Samuel West) of the play she has just seen stops her to ask her opinion of the show. This unleashes a tirade about what will become The Writer’s theme: how art becomes distorted by commercialism (i.e., gratuitous rape scenes sells tickets), and how men are valued for their talent while women are valued for their sexual attractiveness. 

This scene will turn out to be a false front; they are actors rehearsing a scene. Backstories and confessions inform the succession of false scenes that follow: an excruciatingly awkward Q&A with the audience, a confrontation between the “real” director (Michael Gould) and the “real” playwright (Romola Garai) as he  insists the script lacks of a conclusion (a point made vividly by the lack of conclusion in The Writer).

But the central scenes — after we watch each set painstakingly erected and dismantled (no intermissions, no blackouts) — are twin scenes. Garai and West play a couple in a lopsided relationship; there is dinner and there is sex on the sofa, with much stage moaning. Next Garai is half of a lesbian couple with Rossi: more food, more sex, a different sofa, with even more, longer, louder moaning.

If all the scenes between lovers and between directors and playwrights pivot on passive/aggressive manipulation, it’s hard to tell how much we, the “real” audience, are being manipulated, and how much we’re supposed to realize that (of course any play, when it works, manipulates the audience). There is a scene in the woods — starry night, etc., etc. — that the director refers to as “tribal s--t,” a label I was inclined to agree with. Garai’s rant about the life-and-death suffering of the true artist is so overwrought that I began to sympathize with the director; Hickson, the real playwright, has either been very clever or has lost control of her outrage against the naturalism machine.

At a cultural moment when female artists of all sorts are being celebrated and we are being reminded of how disproportionately few there were/are, The Writer is a potent production.

The Writer. Through May 26 at the Almeida Theatre, London.