Germaine Greer (pictured) has dubbed playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, a fellow Australian, an “insane reactionary” for her new comedy The Female of the Species which, inspired by a true-life incident in Greer’s life, receives its UK premiere this Wednesday (16 July 2008, previews from 10 July) at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre (See News, 9 May 2008).

In 2000, Greer, whose ground-breaking 1970 feminist tract The Female Eunuch brought international fame, was held captive for an hour by Karen Burke, a 19-year-old Bath University student who broke into her Essex country house. Burke was later given two years’ probation for harassment.

In The Female of the Species, Eileen Atkins plays Margot Mason, a pioneer of 1970s feminism and author of The Cerebral Vagina and other bestsellers. When committed fan Molly arrives unannounced, she seems to offer a solution to Margot’s current writer’s block – but then she produces a gun. “Men aren’t our problem; old feminists are,” says Molly in the play, which pokes fun at strident feminism.

Greer has responded by saying, in an interview with the Sunday Times that “Murray-Smith is an insane reactionary who boasts that she has not read a single feminist text. She holds feminism in contempt.” She also dismissed The Female of the Species as “threadbare”, though she admitted that she had not read it, returning a copy of the script sent to her by director Roger Michell.

In an interview this week with Whatsonstage.com (See Today’s Interview), actress Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays the fictional student Molly in the play, explained: “We did research on lots of feminists because the play touches on feminism as a whole. It’s certainly not a play about Germaine Greer. It’s based on a certain instance in her life, but I don’t think Joanna would want to be shackled by writing about a real-life person so Margot is very far from who Germaine Greer is.”

Joanna Murray-Smith has also said in interviews that, while Margot shares some characteristics with Greer – “both are charismatic, outrageous and irritating” – she is not a portrait of the real feminist. “It would take a braver woman than me to write about Greer directly.”

But the offended Greer remains unconvinced: “Why do the production team and the writer keep on referring to me, Germaine Greer, if they say it is not Germaine Greer they are writing about it?” Greer has also refused an invitation to visit rehearsals – “I’m a really busy person, whose time is precious. I will not waste it” – and has no intention of attending Wednesday’s opening. “They call this a comedy. What actually happened was a tragedy,” commented Greer. “What are they doing putting this play on in the West End of all places?”

Joanna Murray-Smith’s other plays seen in the UK include Bombshells, the stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Honour. Eileen Atkins and Anna Maxwell Martin starred in the UK premiere of Honour, directed by Roger Michell at the National Theatre in 2003. The Female of the Species is booking for a limited season until 4 October 2008 at the Vaudeville Theatre.

- by Terri Paddock