I had the delightful experience of attending the press preview of Women in Power, a new version of an old (very old) play, at the the Nuffield City Theatre in Southampton.
Directed by Blanche McInityre, this is a new interpretation of Aristophanes’ satire on the weakness of government, a Parliament of Women. Originally performed by men for men, these comic plays were the Spitting Image of the day. Rude, crude, comic and with a political barb with which to prod the incompetent and pompous politicians and celebrities of ancient Athens. Or as one of the many amusing explanatory display boards pointed out – “as we like to call it, modern Athens”.
Co-authored by poets, performers, comics and Labour’s vey own Jess Phillips MP, this collaboration took me back to the days when we were first trying to get local parties to accept women only shortlists for parliamentary and local government selections (and unfortunately still true today, a generation later, in some places). “No women want to put themselves forward” was all too often the mantra of the those happy with the status quo, “if you force us to have AWS, we’ll only get stupid women.” To which my invariable, and rather intolerant, response was, “Well you won’t notice the difference in that case because you’ve got plenty of stupid men.”
This satire could have been brought up to date. It would have been easy to set something similar in the corridors of Westminster today, or the White House or Kremlin, or the amongst the captains of industry around the world. But the original conceit would have been lost, and there were enough references in the language, the costumes and the props to draw parallels with the modern world without over-cooking it into a Trumpian parody.
In one of the more modernised speeches to win the idea of ceding power to woman, the story of the search for a new senior member of staff is recounted. Despite the number of well-qualified and capable women, it is always Colin from accounts who is promoted. But as a result of the vote in the Assembley, women don’t get equality, but absolute power. Over everything.
The six performers brought a tremendous energy to the play which additionally brought together dance, music and song. And they were clearly having great fun at the same time. The story rattles along from women disguising themselves as men to subvert the government and place all power in the hands of women, to the turmoil of creating an egalitarian society where no one can agree whether all, or just some, property is theft.
Like Aristophanes a couple of thousand years ago, today’s authors explore the real issues of governance, power and equality with humour. But this isn’t just gentle satire, although it is that too. It is laugh out loud funny from fake facial hair start to giant penis end (of the play, that is).
And the early rejoinder “fuck off Colin” will live with me for a long time.
At the Nuffield City Theatre, Southampton until 29 September.
- Co-authored by Wendy Cope, Jenny Eclair, Suhayla El-Bushra, Natalie Haynes, Shappi Khorsandi, Brona C Titley and Jess Phillips MP.
- Performed by Lydia Rose Bewley, Elizabeth Boag, Anna Fordham, Lisa Kerr, Alicia McKenzie, and Anne Odeke.