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Review Round-up: Was Greer Right About Species?

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Feminist icon Germaine Greer attracted headlines earlier this week when she labelled playwright and fellow Australian Joanna Murray-Smith an “insane reactionary” and her new play The Female of the Species, which was inspired by a real incident in Greer’s life, as “threadbare” – despite having not seen or read it (See News, 14 Jul 2008). After attending the UK premiere last night (16 July 2008, previews from 10 July) at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre (See Today’s 1st Night Photos, did critics agree?

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.

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, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, arrives unannounced, she seems to offer a solution to Margot’s current writer’s block – but then she produces a gun. The cast also comprises Sophie Thompson, Paul Chahidi, Con O'Neill and Sam Kelly, all of whom become caught up in the hostage situation.

Atkins and Maxwell Martin both appeared in the UK premiere of Murray-Smith’s Honour, which was directed by Species director Roger Michell at the National Theatre in 2003. The new play is designed by Mark Thompson with lighting by James Whiteside and sound by Matt McKenzie. It’s presented in the West End by David Richenthal and Mary Beth O’Connor in association with Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer.

While not all overnight critics agreed with Greer’s assessment, none could resist referencing her in their reviews or expressing their own concerns that the play’s “spongy centre” shies away from any really challenging debate. There was high praise for Eileen Atkins who, critics unanimously believed, overcomes “the role's restrictions”. Sophie Thompson was also roundly applauded for her “wild-eyed” portrayal of Margot’s daughter. And, despite worries about lack of substance, critics were entertained by “an evening of wicked, educated and reactionary amusement” which contains some “genuinely amusing lines”.

Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com

  – “Roger Michell’s production of Australian dramatist Joanna Murray-Smith’s The Female of the Species opens more than promisingly, with Eileen Atkins struggling to remove her bra while answering the telephone and toying with titles for her next feminist tome – would The Utopian Fallopian give Madame Ovary a run for its money? – on a seductively picturesque design by Mark Thompson … Murray-Smith assembles her arguments in the same dogged way she assembles the cast list … The play dates from a Melbourne premiere in 2006, but sometimes feels even more passé than that (we’re all post-feminists now). Still, Atkins is delightful, squeezing laughs from trying to suck Scotch through a straw while manacled to her desk, or wrinkling her features in distaste at the news that her daughter was always mounted on a pedestal by devoted hubby. And Maxwell Martin animates Molly’s screwed-up plight … with a resourceful energy that betrays the play’s spongy centre and over-zealous insistence on discrediting past radicalism.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Germaine Greer is not best pleased with Joanna Murray-Smith. But while the latter's new play was confessedly inspired by the hostage-taking of Dr Greer, it is clearly about something even bigger: the confusion faced by men and women in the post-feminist age. It is a subject worth airing, and is vigorously put across in Roger Michell's production: what the play offers, however, is a sequential succession of viewpoints rather than the thrill of dialectical argument … The play, it should be stressed, is a would-be Shavian comedy that seeks to air a variety of competing arguments; and there is no denying Murray-Smith has a gift for funny lines ... But, if Shaw is the model, I passionately wish Murray-Smith had followed his methods more closely. Shaw gives us thesis and anti-thesis and always provides the devil with the best tunes. Here, however, Murray-Smith allows Margot … to be everyone's Aunt Sally ... You feel she is being used for target practice. It says much for the brilliance of Eileen Atkins that she overcomes the role's restrictions. Through sheer acting intelligence, she transforms the play's principal victim into its most positive force. Anna Maxwell Martin as the psychotic intruder, Sophie Thompson as the hysteric daughter, Paul Chahidi as her dense son-in-law and Con O'Neill as the caveman-cabbie seize their ten-minute moments.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “The Female of the Species strikes me as a cracking piece, part hostage drama, part satire, part outrageous farce. It is also that rarest of things, a contemporary drama written from a genuinely reactionary perspective, though the play's thinking certainly didn't strike this male observer as ‘insane’. Hard-line feminism certainly gets a pretty thorough kicking, though … It's hugely entertaining, unless of course you happen to be a humourless radical feminist (something Greer herself certainly isn't). Roger Michell directs a splendidly sprightly production, which combines polemic, sharp jokes and passages that are genuinely touching. Should she see the play, Greer will undoubtedly hate the way Eileen Atkins so mercilessly nails the feminist writer's hilarious vanity, but she also endows the character with humour, sexiness and a life-force that brooks no resistance. It's not a role that stretches this marvellous actress to her limits, but it's great to see my favourite theatrical Dame allowed to have a bit of fun for once. Anna Maxwell Martin is both disconcerting and affecting as the mixed-up hostage taker, who powerfully delivers the wise message that ‘ideology denies the true, strange beauty of the human experience’. At 100 minutes without an interval, the play never outstays its welcome and will, I predict, provoke vigorous debate between men and women who see it together.”
  • Kate Bassett in the Independent on Sunday – " ... I must say I was uncomfortable at first with Roger Michell's production. Turning such an incident into light entertainment feels dishonourable, even if the celebrity author of The Cerebral Vagina, named Margot Mason, and her assailant, Molly, are clearly fictional ... That said, Greer certainly isn't above satire and presumably she wouldn't want to reintroduce censorship. It is, in fact, the limited authenticity that is problematic at first. Atkins' performance looks more stagey than satirically sharp in the opening scene as she hollers at her agent on the phone while wrestling her bra off under her top and hurling it away with a grimace. Maxwell Martin's dweeby Molly also hovers awkwardly at the off, on the threshold of caricature, twitching in her anorak, furiously confused by feminist theories ... The denouement is lame, but at its height this is a very funny evening and a comedy of ideas. It makes you dwell – retrospectively – on how profoundly confused we are now about what women really want."
  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “How rare it is to find a new West End play with a seriously amusing mind of its own. Joanna Murray-Smith's The Female of the Species may best be described as a farcical comedy, but there's no missing the force, intelligence or incidental comedy of the attack Murray-Smith launches on that first heroine of feminism, Germaine Greer. Nor are we allowed to lose sight of the playwright's conviction that women's liberation has left some women oppressed and depressed by feminist insistence upon what they should want out of life or try to be. Men, as Murray-Smith reveals them here, have been left scarcely more certain about what they should expect of themselves or their female partners … The Female of the Species would have been far more dramatic and provocative if Margot and her detractors had fought out their rival claims. Instead the splendid Dame Eileen mounts another witty display of brisk imperiousness and self-admiring froideur, effortlessly swatting away complaints as if they were mere gnats. It makes for an evening of wicked, educated and reactionary amusement.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Is the bellicose, foul-mouthed, cynical, smug, self-infatuated, envious, hypocritical, boastful but perhaps inwardly vulnerable feminist writer played by Eileen Atkins in The Female of the Species really a disguised portrait of Germaine Greer? Her fellow Australian Joanna Murray-Smith says no, and she should know, since she wrote the play. But Greer herself has publicly said yes, and, though I’m not sure she should have gone on to call the dramatist ‘an insane reactionary’, I wouldn’t dare disagree with her … I must admit that I laughed at some genuinely amusing lines, while acknowledging that the debate isn’t all that trenchant and the play is unworthy of Atkins, though she’s as brusquely abrasive as her role demands. Insofar as Murray-Smith has an overall point, it is that old-style feminism distorted and damaged lives. But she undermines her serious aims with lines like (from Margot) ‘Who hasn’t been sexually molested? I know women who have been in therapy because they weren’t sexually molested.’ That’s cheap, cheesy and, let’s agree, pretty unGreer.”
  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) – “The central character of Margot Mason, played by Eileen Atkins … is little more than a cardboard cut-out monster and the joke wears thin pretty quickly. When Anna Maxwell Martin turns up as stalker Molly, the idea of playing a real-life abduction for laughs really does seem poor taste. Fortunately we turn away from Greer’s life when Sophie Thompson enters with a riotous performance as Margot’s rebelliously conventional daughter, pushed into insanity by domestic drudgery. But three subsequent male arrivals … stretch credulity … Murray-Smith does not seem sure whether she is attempting a serious engagement with changing attitudes to feminism - in which case she does need to read more texts - or a battle-of-the-sexes knockabout. At her best, she can certainly write comedy - the manic Thompson begging Maxwell Martin to shoot her mother is hilarious - but too many of the gags are lame or clichéd. Director Roger Michell seems equally unsure whether to go for madcap chaos or naturalism, and the physical business is particularly lacklustre … It’s all reasonably diverting at a trivial level. But Greer is right to complain at the crude lampoon - and ‘threadbare’ isn’t entirely wrong.”

    - by Kate Jackson & Terri Paddock

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