New feminist theatre at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Four examples of feminist theatre that challenge preconceptions of women's performance
This article is from 2016.
Over the past century, the traditional emphasis on men as the mighty motivators of history has been challenged by a more inclusive and feminist vision of the past – and the present. The gains made in women's suffrage, and legal rights, have changed the landscape of society, and the arts have played an important role in this shift.
Contemporary theatre has become a key location for the discussion of 'alternative histories', which unearth unwritten female experience and dynamic women. While many Fringe shows follow a feminist theme, others are not content to battle familiar prejudice and take an expansive attitude to feminist art.
Nzinga: Warrior Queen, performed by Scotland-based performer Mara Menzies, focuses on the incredible true story of an Angolan woman, Nzinga, born into a patriarchal society, who was crowned queen in the 17th century, aged 50.
Menzies' production fuses dance, poetry and storytelling to uncover Nzinga's struggle. There is a real sense of giving voice to someone who was something of an anomaly. As she explains: 'There are not enough female role models out there, especially African role models, and when I discovered Nzinga's story, I was fascinated by the sheer strength of character she must have had to endure what would have been a difficult and extraordinary life.'
Menzies, who spent the first 13 years of her life living in Kenya, says she is actively avoiding turning the story into an unrealistic example of hero worship. She goes on to say: 'It's not about placing her on a pedestal, but exploring the unique role she played in history and discovering how we might be inspired by her story to live our lives better.'
Writer /director Adura Onashile's provocative and thought-provoking new play Expensive Shit follows on from her successful performance as Henrietta Lacks in HeLa which garnered critical acclaim and toured internationally. It juxtaposes the dual storylines of Nigerian nightclub toilet attendant Tolu's dreams of becoming a dancer with Fela Kuti's revolutionary band in Nigeria in the 80s and 90s, with her low-paid work in present-day Britain.
Based on an infamous incident in Glasgow's Shimmy nightclub in 2012, when it emerged that male customers had paid to ogle unsuspecting women in the club's toilets, the play reflects on exploitation, the male gaze and how far some people will go to survive. An all-female cast tell the story and reflect upon how far there is to go in terms of equality in the workplace, with the music by Kuti providing a powerful heartbeat to the narrative.
Adura says of Kuti's music: 'I have always loved the way Kuti's revolutionary politics were presented with humour and subversiveness, often dealing with difficult topics like African identity and post colonialism in a disarming but infectious way.'
This has informed her approach to the play. 'I wanted to use this same aesthetic for an examination of his politics from a female point of view and, within a Scottish context, in looking at the dynamics of a society where a club thinks it's fine to have a two-way mirror in the female toilets without the women knowing,' she says. 'I thought there might be parallels in both investigations.'
Making its international debut at the Fringe is Delia Olam's Just Let the Wind Untie My Perfumed Hair … or Who is Tahirih?. Tahirih was a 19th-century revolutionary poet who removed her veil in front of a group of men, and was executed by strangulation, aged 36, for fighting for human rights.
Performer Olam says her fearless acts as symbols of emancipation cannot be underestimated. 'She was imprisoned multiple times for her beliefs, in an attempt to silence her, but her clear, intelligent and passionate eloquence always found an audience.' The beautiful poetry is also a huge factor in the show's creative process. 'It was mostly written in the ghazal tradition of love letters to the divine,' Olam says.
Using live music with cello and dulcimer, set to her original poetry, this powerful piece will ensure Tahirih's legacy remains undiminished, while providing insight to a whole new audience.
Performer and writer Kirsten McPake is a member of Pinched Theatre, the emerging young company based between West Lothian and Edinburgh, who are behind The F Words, a show which began with the idea that feminism is something to celebrate. 'There's been a media storm around the idea of feminism, usually with negative connotations,' says McPake. 'We decided that we wanted to bring back the positive of being proud to be female.'
The devised nature of the show keeps it topical, tapping into the zeitgeist, which means it is constantly evolving, and McPake insists it is suitable for a wider audience. 'We have been slightly worried that our title and show description makes it sound like it is a show only for women – it really isn't,' she says.
This more contemporary take on feminist theatre engages both the political and the personal: 'It is a show about these particular women sharing what their life is and how they think their gender affects it.' At the same time, it rejects the stereotype. 'It's not a massive, angry, feminist rant. We really are hoping that people will be open to come and see what our show's all about. We know that male or female, young or old, you will be able to relate to some of the observations, obsessions and fears of these twentysomething-year-old women.'
Feminist theatre ranges across history, social observations and political struggles. The strength of these contemporary and historical stories blazes a trail for new women's work which is accessible, challenging, lyrical and passionate.
Nzinga Warrior Queen, Scottish Storytelling Centre, 5–19 Aug (not 10), 3pm, £10 (£8). Preview 4 Aug, £7 (£5); Expensive Shit, Traverse, 5–28 Aug (not 8, 15, 22), times vary, £18.50 (£8.50--£13,50, £8,50). Preview 4 Aug, £12.50 (£8.50); The F Words, Greenside @ Nicolson Square, 15–27 Aug (not 21), times vary, £8 (£6.50); Just Let the Wind Untie My Perfumed Hair … or Who is Tahirih?, Assembly George Square Studios, 6–29 Aug (not 16), 12.35pm, £11--£13 (£9--£11). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £6.