Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre

9/10

When I was a child, one of my aunts often used to sit me down to watch films starring Hayley Mills. If you grew up in a world where The Parent Trap starred Lindsay Lohan, then I should explain here that Hayley Mills was the daughter of a British film star, who became a child star in the 1960s. For me, one of the defining features of these films, most of which were made by Disney, was that they starred a distinctly British child surrounded by an American family. I was frustrated by the lack of backstory around this, especially in the film That Darn Cat! which even featured an older sister who was American, so I couldn’t even plausibly convince myself that the character’s parents had spent a chunk of time in the UK and recently return to the US.

What this digression has to do with the Almeida production of Hamlet that’s just transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, is the fact that Andrew Scott is the lone player with an Irish accent, while everyone else gives their best (and in some cases approximate) RSC delivery. This ends up being both a distraction and a revelation, because it’s hard not to wonder why he is different when the others are so much the same.

Scott’s delivery is what makes this production. Suddenly, lines which are usually soberly declaimed bubble forth like real, live speech. You get the impression that this Hamlet is thinking and feeling his words, rather than reading them off the backs of his eyes. The rhythms of Scott’s speech are a perfect match for Hamlet’s soliloquies. He makes the ravings of a madman make sense – and delivers them with a knowing humour that draws loud cackles from the audience. The fact that he feels real and the rest of the cast are Doing Shakespeare reinforces the fact that there might, as Polonius suggests, be method in his madness. Hamlet, despite losing his wits, is the only one who sees the world as it really is – a powerful message in the current political climate.

The only scene I didn’t enjoy as much was the “get thee to a nunnery” exchange with Ophelia, which is usually my favourite part of the play. The spirited delivery of the rest of the text muted its impact: and I am not going to complain.

It’s a modern Hamlet – the action takes place in 21st Century Denmark, some of the costumes could have been bought in Muji, and both CCTV and press footage are incorporated into the action in a way that seems entirely natural and appropriate. Whereas many other productions finagle modern elements into old plays to make awkward  parallels, this Hamlet fully – and comfortably – inhabits the modern world.

The direction is superb, and helps to expand some of the characters whose stage presence is too brief in the text. We see them going about their lives behind a screen while the main action takes place, giving us a sense of who they are even before they first speak. The same screen is also a subtle way of dealing with the distinctly unmodern streak of supernatural in the play – the dead inhabit the world beyond the screen.

As ever, I must make a brief pause in all this to hammer on about the male gaze and its ugly interruption of what is a stellar production. Why, should Ophelia (both sane and mad) feverishly wrap her legs around her brother Laertes and hump him as though she is Martine McCutcheon in Love Actually? I admire the form of Jessica Brown Findlay as much as the next person with a pulse, but really, I felt this was merely an excuse to get a young actor into an unnecessarily sexual pose.

I’m known for seriously disliking Hamlet. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s my least favourite Shakespearean tragedy. It’s always felt rather self indulgent to me – both in the way it is written and the way it is performed. I loathe its tendency to make even the finest of actors generally catching their breath a little before launching into the famous speeches. I’ve seen it four times since the age of 14, and managed to feel unmoved even when Michael Sheen brandished Yorick’s skull mere inches from my face. I can’t hep but lose my will half through the second act every time.

Except this time. This production not only has me wanting to purchase another ticket, but itching to revisit the text – something I haven’t bothered to do for at least 15 years. I think that warrants a Bravo all round.

Salome, Olivier Theatre

 

2/10

I have only myself to blame for the fact that I ended up sitting through Salome last night. I visited the NT website three times and decided it was not for me, before thinking “Oh, go on then…” For this, I am a fool.

Salome, in case the reference escapes you, is a Biblical tale. Salome, the favoured niece and stepdaughter of King Herod, causes the execution of John the Baptist by requesting his head on a platter as a reward for some particularly fine dancing. Author and director Yaël Farber‎ has taken this as a cue to produce something that is part political allegory, part interpretive dance, part performance art and all nonsense.

We are introduced to two Salomes. The narrator, old Salome, has been imprisoned under the temple. Young Salome doesn’t speak for most of the play, she just watches. Old Salome is at great pains for us to know that she wasn’t just a princess and the cause of John the Baptist’s ruin, she was a revolutionary in an occupied territory, and her story has been suppressed. John the Baptist wears nothing but some very tight underwear and speaks only in Hebrew, while the rest of the cast speak English. The subtitles for his lines are sometimes obscured by a giant ladder, which, depending on your interpretation, is either headed down to the dungeons or up to heaven. Sometimes it disappears and becomes a table, which is all well and good at a small theatre with a tight budget, but at the National it’s just indulgent. Jesus is a man in a loincloth who does interpretive dance and every now and then utters garbled pronouncements – a bit like the sort of ‘preachers’ you see outside Aldi on a Sunday afternoon.

In Farber’s interpretation, Salome is a revolutionary. Sexually abused by her uncle (Paul Chahidi – the high point of the show, more of him, please) she feels an affinity with the outsider John, and finds comfort in his teachings. John baptises her as one of his disciples and her decision to dance and to ask Herod for his head are all part of her plan to ensure he is martyred and remembered forever instead of kept forcibly alive in obscurity by Herod’s guards.

Farber seems to be trying to give a female perspective to the male-dominated stories from the Bible. And yet, there is a heavy dose of male gaze about this production. John baptises all his disciples fully clothed, except for Salome, who must first do a striptease and then submit to a sensual bath. From this point onwards, she frolics in an airy, transparent shift, frequently revealing her breasts. Breasts are lovely, but this seems a little unnecessary, to say the least. And somewhat unlikely behaviour for a character who gets raped about five times in 90 minutes. Her famous ‘dance’ consists mainly of rubbing her nipples and gurning. It feels like titillation, rather than appropriate nudity, and I certainly wouldn’t offer her anything unto half of all my kingdom for it.

The political allegory is strong in this one. The word occupation comes up a lot, often spoken a bit louder than the rest of the dialogue for the benefit of the dim ones at the back. In case there is any lingering doubt whatsoever with regard to the parallel being drawn here, Farber ensures that at one point the Hebrew soldiers arrive on stage armed with guns, adopt poses familiar from news footage, and talk about occupation and possession of land. HAVE YOU GOT IT YET?

The show is littered with the ridiculous. During one of the sexual abuse scenes, Herod gropes Salome while telling her that “Your saliva is the special sauce of my life” – possibly the worst line I have ever heard uttered in the Olivier and something that even the most negligent porn director would probably strike from a low-budget script.

Salome’s big draw is meant to be the stage direction, but I found it a bit crowded. There’s a lot going on. Any players who aren’t centre stage get involved in the interpretive dance, fanny about with drapes, or stand on a carousel and spin around the action. Every now and then they all gather around a table and mimic The Last Supper. It feels heavy handed and worthy – like those Eurovision songs that tell of the beauty and independence of some minor beleaguered state in an attempt to distract their more fortunate neighbours from the joys of glitter and lurex.

Fifteen minutes in, I’d had enough of heavily declaimed poetry, floating tablecloths and interpretive dance and was longing for the interval and blessed escape. Except that like most theatrical abominations these days, Salome has not interval. Of course not. Because then its victims might leave before the ordeal was quite done. I was trapped in the Olivier for a further 90 minutes. I knew how Salome felt in her dungeon, I can tell you.

It’s possible, of course, that this was a wonderful performance and I am merely more of an Old Testament Philistine than a New Testament revolutionary. The woman to my right wept when it really got going, and I think she was genuinely moved rather than bitterly regretful. However, take my experience as a warning, and do not buy a ticket to this show unless you can get an aisle seat.

Review: Judy! Arts Theatre, Covent Garden

6/10

Judy! is the latest in the procession of those shows about Judy Garland that pop up every now and then, the most notable among them being Over the Rainbow which had most Garland fans wetting themselves with excitement. This is not that show.

The basic premise  – you can’t call it a plot – around which Judy! operates is that the audience is watching Garland at three stages of her career: the action weaves in and out of the lives of Teen Judy (Lucy Penrose), Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) and CBS Judy (Helen Sheals).

Sheals is magnificent – by far the best thing in the show – and captures all the fascinating, almost dangerous vulnerability that made Garland’s television performances so compelling. She quips her way through the recording of her TV series, fighting over its format, and scaring off producers while grappling with unscrupulous agents and Sidney Luft’s debts. Sheals has clearly both studied her subject meticulously and made the character and performance her own, allowing her to really enjoy giving us ‘her’ Garland. Her Judy is world-weary, but still sassy. The Judy captured by the likes of Rufus Wainwright and watched by millions of fans on YouTube. I was enthralled.

Teen Judy (Lucy Penrose) has yet to make her big break, is being made miserable by her mother and the studio for not being enough like Shirley Temple and only has an older, sympathetic gay colleague on whose shoulder to cry. Foreshadowing, for those unfamiliar with Garland lore, her alleged penchant for marrying gay husbands. Penrose’s physical performance can feel a bit stiff and overdone at times, but she captures Garland’s awkward, self-conscious “ugly duckling” phase beautifully, with jerky, overly theatrical movements. Her segment has the closest thing to a plot, as we see her transition from an outsider trying to get a studio contract, through relentless touring and finally into The Girl Who Will Be Dorothy.

By comparison, Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) feels like the weak link of the trio. This may be because hers is the least easily defined Judy. Sheals and Penrose seem to really know who they’re playing – and know her inside out. Wollaston seems uncertain, possibly because her character has nothing much to define her as Judy except the songs. In fairness to her, this is mostly a failure of the script. Palace Judy’s moments on stage are tedious and rambling, with nothing much happening except for emotional outbursts and declarations of love for Sid Luft. Wollaston never seems quite comfortable in the role, as if aware that her material isn’t the best. It doesn’t help that she is considerably taller than the other two Judys on stage, effectively breaking the magic of the show’s central conceit.

Fortunately for all concerned, the audience is there for neither plot nor script nor acting. It matters little that we learn nothing new or unexpected about Judy Garland from this show, or that in places the caricature (domineering stage mother! Gay father! Gay husbands!) is almost painful to watch. This show is all about the music. And on that score (!) the show delivers in buckets.

Supporting cast members drift from centre stage at the end of their scenes to pick up an instrument and join the band. Each Judy has her big numbers, with the fact that Garland reinterpreted many of her most famous songs numerous times throughout her career incorporated as the Judys join each other on stage to harmonise on favourites like Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart. Favourites like The Trolley Song are balanced with lesser-known gems and this is where the stars of the show really shine. Penrose and Sheals excel at bringing to life the energy of Garland’s early and late performances, leaving those in the audience born too late longing for the experience of seeing the real thing. It’s in the final part of the show that Wollaston proves her worth – and explains her casting – by giving an energising finale performance in top hat and tails. It’s hard not to be thrilled while watching these songs sung by a trio giving their best Judy Garland. Every time the music starts, the audience is mesmerised, not least by the fantasy of experiencing a fraction of what it would have been like to see Judy herself.  The dramatic action, on the other hand, instantly breaks the spell. I left feeling lifted by the music, but wishing the script had worked harder to match the musical exuberance. Not to mention wondering where I’d hidden my well-worn CD of Judy’s Carnegie Hall performance.

Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

8/10

Twelfth Night is one of those plays I’ve always found difficult to enjoy. Now that our culture has all but abandoned the topsy turvy twelfth night tradition, Sir Toby’s japes are the only element of the plot that seem to have any shred of probability to them. Then there’s the fact that directors can never really reconcile their desire to have a “pretty” female lead with audience’s need to have someone who looks even halfway convincing in drag (the 1990s film adaptation is a prime example of this, with Imogen Stubbs feeling rather too much like Blackadder’s Bob for comfort). The japes take an uncomfortably dark turn and the denouement is wildly hasty, with significant characters disappearing abruptly, their absence explained in throwaway lines. And into all of this, you have to insert regular dances and songs. Like I said, it’s a difficult play.

The current production at Shakespeare’s Globe navigates these difficulties with aplomb. I went to a midnight matinee feeling somewhat worried about staying awake after failing to stop at home for an early evening nap. I needn’t have worried. It isn’t humanly possible to sleep through a show like this.

The action starts on a cruise ship, vibrant with disco music and 70s fashions. Sebastian and Viola are both pretty in flares, with close cut afro hairstyles. Gender-bending is the order of the day. Many of the players – notably Katy Owen (last season’s spectacular Puck) as Malvolio and Nandi Bhebhe as Fabian in heels – play opposite gender parts, with the focus on androgyny rather than drag.  This provides a far more subtle and interesting commentary on our perceptions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ than Viola’s assumption of boy’s attire.

Anita-Joy Uwajeh strikes a perfect note as Viola, alternating lash-beating timidity and boyish awkwardness. She modifies her body language to signify the change, making the disguise believable with no need for comedy facial hair.

The cast is spectacular – so much so that it is hard to single out anyone in particular. Each of them adds distinct touches that smooth out the play’s loose ends and ragged edges.Annette McLaughlin’s comic timing makes Olivia’s approach to her love life somewhat less ridiculous. Joshua Lacey’s Orsino is long-haired, leather-jacketed and oversexed, a womaniser clearly fickle enough to switch his affections from Olivia to Viola once the central ruse is up.  Elegant drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat dazzles in sequins and gives good voice as Feste and brings welcome sass and sparkle to ‘Sister’ Topaz. Carly Bawden is pert and saucy in her maid’s outfit as Maria – pining less for Sir Toby and taking more of a leading part in the action than in some other productions – egging the others on and leading their mischief. Marc Antolin – potentially the best thing in the show – is uproariously camp as a lisping Sir Andrew Aguecheek with a wardrobe that deserves its own place on the cast list. Tony Jayawardena’s kilted Sir Toby Belch for once stays on the right side of the grotesque: a drunk, for certain, but it’s clear why Maria is so taken with him. Katy Owen takes sheer delight in playing Malvolio, buzzing around the stage like a tiny, uptight mosquito, who bursts out in turn with repressed pride, rage, and love.

Music and dance enliven the parts where the plot starts to drag, and movement affords characters such as Antonio and Sebastian more charisma than they otherwise might have had. Even at the end, the cast is buzzing – and the audience are too. It’s an enlivening and uplifting show – and an excellent take on one of Shakespeare’s more unusual plays.

 

 

 

Ugly Lies the Bone, Lyttleton Theatre

8/10

Jess is a US Army veteran, returned from Afghanistan with life-changing injuries. Scarred beyond recognition, she is getting used to a new face, a new body, and a new world of physical and emotional pain.

The action is split between Jess’s VR therapy sessions and her experiences at home. Reluctant to engage with her treatment, she hoodwinks her therapist into programming this world – which is meant to be a reflection of Jess’s own aspirations – in the image of her sister Kacie’s ‘dream board’. Here, she is encouraged to explore freedom of movement, to walk, to climb, to run. To escape her disabilities and her pain.

In the real world, Jess is navigating a landscape of a very different type, one that has recently changed forever. We discover that it’s not just Jess’s injuries that have changed her life for good – the shuttle programme has ended, leaving her hometown without a purpose, and her life choices have left her lonelier than she would like to be.

As the story begins, Jess is trying to avoid the outside world, hiding herself away from the guests at her welcome party and dismissing her sister Kacie’s efforts to draw her out of herself. The rest of the play is a heart-wrenching quest in search of the broken threads of a life that might have been – the teaching career she might have had; the man she might have married (played with brilliant awkwardness by Ralph Little).

Jess’s mistrust of new experiences is reflected in her interactions with her sister’s new boyfriend, welfare scrounger Kelvin (Kris Marshall) whom she suspects of nefarious intent.  Kelvin, who is not quite the man her sister dreamed of and probably not the best she could get, seems to embody the revised and imperfect future Jess sees stretching before her; one where she cannot choose the career she wants, or the lovers she wants, but must settle for what is available. And yet, despite his faults, Kelvin is not malicious and has both Jess and her sister’s interests at heart.

It’s not hard to make the comparison between Jess and her home country – or indeed our own – as she reels from the shock of her new circumstances and what they mean.  This is a play about change – and in particular the changes we can’t control. From the accidents that befall us, and the political decisions that impact our lives, to the unintended consequences of the choices we make. When change reshapes our lives, who understands? Who really loves our changed selves? Is it the people who look after us, or the people who remember us? Is true love remembering the version of us and our lives that we feel is most authentic, or accepting who we are, in the moment? These are the questions Jess has to ask.

It’s a difficult story to tell without tugging relentlessly on the heartstrings, but Lindsey Ferrentino manages to do it – and brilliantly so. Kate Fleetwood’s Jess surveys her surroundings with dry, sarcastic humour without ever becoming unsympathetic. The dialogue is witty, but with a stilted feel that reflects the occasional awkwardness of real conversations and real lives. If Ugly Lies the Bone were a Hollywood film, it would be heartwarming. Instead, it is reassuringly bittersweet. Jess’s therapy ends before she feels ready, and she learns that there is no Level 2. Her only choice is to start her climb again. In the outside world, she makes progress, but finds no answers. There is no happy ending here. Jess’s future remains precarious, her recovery unfinished. But perhaps now she has learned the acceptance she needs to start imagining her life all over again.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter theatre

10/10

This is the third West End production of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? since I started going to the theatre, and the only one I’ve been to see. I was excited the moment I first heard it was coming. In the end, I went to see it more times than I’ve seen any other production, and was captivated every time.

The set alone, is cause for excitement, a sunken square of carpet that opens to the audience like a boxing ring waiting for its fighters, but nonetheless feels like a real house. The play, of course, is set up like a fight and uses repeated boxing metaphor and language. At various points, Martha is physically restrained, like a boxer who won’t admit it is the end of the bout.  It’s the sort of space I’d love to live in, and I adored the genteel disorder and attention to detail of it.

At first glance, Imelda Staunton is an unusual choice for Martha. The role is usually played by an actress on the large side – and for good reason. Her zaftig frame is referenced several times in the text. So there is a little bit of mental jiggery pokery involved in putting someone so definitively petite in the role. George and Nick’s dialogue about their wives’ relative weight doesn’t make sense when Martha is a slim 5ft and Honey has a good 6 inches in height on her. Set aside that one inconsistency, however, and Staunton is, as ever, astonishingly good. Despite rarely playing glamorous roles – she has been known to tell interviewers that she likes “looking rough” on screen – she seems nonetheless to relish sexing it up in Martha’s “Sunday chapel dress” and playing off two leading men (Staunton is, it occurs to me, one of the few female actors I can think of who consistently plays opposite actors younger than her – Mat Horne, Conleth Hill, Michael Ball, Hugh Laurie all spring to mind. More casting like  this please!). She has the most physically demanding role in the show, and her sheer energy is breathtaking, bringing the same force of nature performance she brought to Gypsy (of which more later): she writhes, she whines, jumps, dances, shrieks, seethes, yells, cries – and yes, she does bray. She makes the audience laugh as loudly as she makes them weep and manages to be as pitiful as she is grotesque. It rapidly becomes clear why the casting makes perfect sense. Staunton is a master of playing larger than life characters who tower over the stage, but when Martha crumples inwards, she wrings her rage and despair into a tiny ball of sobs that makes it possible to feel protective of Martha despite her monstrous ways. From the back of the balcony, it’s impressive. From the front row of the stalls, it’s so intense that it’s almost painful to watch. If I have one small criticism, it’s that occasionally – just occasionally – there’s a touch of Madame Rose about Staunton’s Martha – but just a touch.

Although Martha often feels like the star performance, it was George I was longing to see. Not only because his lines are some of my favourites, but because Conleth Hill is an actor who was always going to do something interesting with the role. While Martha’s rageful antics may seem dominate the action, it’s Hill’s George who is really running the show. Hill offers an excellent portrayal of repressed emotion: a great balance to Staunton’s Martha letting it all hang out. He seethes. He claws back tears. He sneaks off when it gets too much to deal with his feelings alone – a natural response when faced with someone whose bad behaviour is on display all the time.

For much of the play, he appears to be observing, ironically. Enjoying the show, even. But his vulnerability comes out, for me, in the moments when he can’t bear to be there.

It’s easy to think of George as the long-suffering half of the duo – Martha even characterises him as such. But ultimately, George knows – both of them know in fact – that he is the most together of the two, which puts him in control. Equally, Martha’s claims that George was a rising star who never made it never entirely convince me. Those ambitions, it seems, were all Martha’s. The George who would be king never really existed.

I read an interview with Conleth Hill where he expressed a fairly romantic interpretation of the play: that there’s hope at the end and George and Martha sort things out. For me, this outlook informs his performance to an extent: Hill’s George loves Martha and hasn’t stopped loving her, even though he also loathes her at times. He plays along with her games but that’s a choice; she needs him, which isn’t, so she has more to lose when he takes over as games master. Martha’s claim that George needs her arm to whip him rings false. He knows she’s broken and needs to push him away; she needs him there to push. But the final emphasis on “WE couldn’t” at the end when explaining their childlessness seals their complicity – lines Hill and Staunton deliver perfectly, while looking away from each other.

As someone who grew up watching the Mike Nichols film version of this play, it’s impossible to avoid making a comparison between the two – especially since the casting is a little off text in both cases. Reversing the age difference between George and Martha in the film not only makes it necessary to excise all the lines about Martha’s age, but also reduces them to an exceptionally vicious take on the archetypal older man/beautiful young wife pairing: this George has been seduced by beauty and lived to regret it. This Martha has married an older man – one she naively thought was more successful and sophisticated than he was. In contrast, Staunton and Hill’s take on the roles reminds me of so many mismatched couples I grew up around. Often the combination of a loud, mouthy, frequently vulgar wife and a quieter, bookish husband. No-one could ever quite work out what temporary madness had got them together, but it had. And only they knew what kept them together.

Additionally, when played by an actress in her 30s – not least one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen – Martha’s seduction of the not-that-much-younger Nick seems commonplace rather than grotesque. Watching the film, it seems hard to believe that this Martha’s conquests would need Dutch courage to attempt the deed, or approach her thinking only of their careers. I mean no insult to Ms Staunton by this – she makes an alluring Martha – but the seduction element takes on a different emotional and psychological hue when Martha is played by a mere mortal, and one who, at 61, is genuinely old enough to be Nick’s mother.

But it’s not all about George and Martha in this play, even if they do absorb most of its energy. Imogen Poots is outstanding as Honey – a difficult role since much of its success lies in the small, physical moments, rather than the lines, which are sparse and often merely punchlines to what others say. She makes it her own, aces the interpretative dance and gets some spectacular and well-deserved laughs. Luke Treadaway, as Nick, didn’t really do it for me. He never seems quite comfortable in his character, and the character is in turn uncomfortable in his surroundings, so things feel stilted. His chemistry with Staunton is better than with Hill, so that towards the end of the second act he improves, but I couldn’t help leaving with the impression that it was a role he didn’t enjoy playing.

It’s easy to see Nick and Honey as younger version of George and Martha – she with her emergent drinking problem and he with his career plan. I’m not against that theory, but I’d reverse the roles: Nick is more like Martha, with her ambitious plan for the future, and George is her mouse – a bit naïve at the start, perhaps dazzled by someone more sophisticated than he is. The young couple could easily represent America’s future, with George and Martha its squabbling, dysfunctional (and let’s not forget barren) past.  In which case, we are now living in the world Nick and Honey have made  for their grandchildren: if we want to know what happens to them after they leave George and Martha’s, I think we know the answer.

Overall, this stage production brings to life more of the devastating tragedy of the text than the film version was able. I always used to watch the film and suppose George and Martha spent their Sunday having kinky sex and then started the whole mess all over again the following Saturday. Burton and Taylor gave off that vibe. Staunton and Hill have a different chemistry. They’re going to sleep it off, crawl out of bed at dusk and either never speak to each other again or else finally discuss that rest home. You get the impression that while the two leads have enjoyed their fun at points, something really has changed, leaving the audience to wonder what happens when they finally wake up – not to mention the next time -they run into their victims/guests on campus.

Is it time women stopped talking about women?

Recently, I was working with a respected colleague on a content strategy for a female client. Knowing that our client is deeply involved in high-profile forums for women in business and is a regular speaker at high-profile events, I suggested that she might want to build on this.

My male colleague winced, visibly. “The women thing…I don’t know.” His implication was that the subject of women’s inclusion in the industry was old hat. Despite this, in the course of our discussion he went on to  make several references to how male-dominated it was – even mentioning at one point that I was the only woman he’d ever encountered in my sort of role.

During the rest of our conversation, I asked myself: was he right? Having given the matter some reflection, I don’t think so. Here are just a few reasons why.

Talking about women still makes men uncomfortable

When I was born, feminism was already at least a decade past its most violent years. I’m now in my mid-30s now and men still find conversations about women – and female experience – hard to stomach. A week or so ago I had a male colleague tell me that it was TMI to mention periods in the context of an article about a cycle tracking device. Really? This sort of squeamishness is unacceptable. If we want to live in a world where everyone – female, male, gay, straight, cis, trans – can feel comfortable sharing their experience of being a human, we need to shut this discomfort down. And doing so means sharing female narratives and experiences in every context – including the spheres of business and work.

Women still need visibility

The disproportionate male domination of business is not changing quickly enough. While women cute a streak as entrepreneurs, Only 7% of FTSE 100 companies are led by women – and given the fact that more than 50% of the UK’s population is female, we need to keep talking about why that is the case. We can’t keep hiding behind the excuse that motherhood gets in the way either – 20% of UK women never even have children.  We should focus more on the fact that C-level execs are chosen by their peers – and many men don’t understand women enough to see them as peers.  

Women are not an ‘issue’ to be resolved

By implying narratives around women are ‘done’, my colleague was suggesting women have now been successfully absorbed into the male business world and are no longer an ‘issue’ to be resolved. This attitude is problematic because it reinforces the working world as a male space that women have the right to enter but not to change. It also suggests that women need to be pacified – and in the process silenced. Talking about our experience as women is an important way to ensure not only that ‘male’ ceases to be the default, but also that our views and voices shape the world in which we work.

Equality shouldn’t mean being absorbed by men

If we set absorption as the goal for equality, we completely ignore the fact that women’s identity and experience is different – especially in the workplace. As David Parry-Jones has illustrated in his 50 Days of Male Privilege Statements posts, much of what is normal for women is completely unheard of by men. It’s not just a case of being underpaid and overlooked: women frequently have to restructure their careers – either through choice or responsibility – in ways that men don’t. Women rarely have a straight upwards career path and are more likely to make sideways moves. And these experiences have put women at the forefront of developing new ways of working. If we close down narratives around female experience in the workplace, we also close down narratives about, work-life balance, career design and the changing structure of work.

Closing down narratives around women – considering them out of fashion, inconvenient, or already dealt with – reduces the needs and perspectives of a large proportion of the world’s workforce to an afterthought. It also helpfully ignores many ongoing issues that affect people of all genders. As we start to increase our awareness of identities beyond the binary, conversations that challenge the male default are becoming even more vital. And we should all be having them.

Why don’t train companies bother using technology?

It’s 1.30 on Friday afternoon. It’s my lunch hour, but I daren’t consider a sandwich. Instead, I am sat on the floor of a GWR train with my laptop, feeling increasingly queasy as I read and write in discomfort.

This is the second time in a month that I have found myself travelling in this manner. The first was in early March, when, despite clearly selecting a specific train from King’s X to Edinburgh, I ended up with nowhere to sit. What had seemed to me like an opportunity to choose whether I had a preference over the TYPE of seat (aisle/window) was actually a question regarding whether or not I wanted a seat to begin with. Well, of course I did, it takes over 5hrs to get from London to Edinburgh and no-one wants to stand for that long.

I ended up first thinking I’d dropped my reservation – despite not having an accompanying reservation my ticket informed me it was not valid without one – before learning from Virgin I’d never had one in the first place. How was this possible, when I’d chosen and booked for a specific service? I was tired, stressed due to work pressures, and physically not in the best of health – and ended up bursting into tears, crammed into corridor space like cattle with a load of students from ghastly places like Peterborough. What should have been the start of a nice relaxing holiday was stressful and upsetting. Virgin’s team were making no effort to find people seats and their online support suggested I walk up and down the crowded train with my luggage looking for one. To add insult to injury, they had a limited menu and few functioning toilets. The best they had to offer me was a patronising take on “sorry”. I arrived in Edinburgh sullen, hungry, and so exhausted I had to change my plans for the following day.

Getting it better the Great Western way

Today, I actually had a reservation – booked more than a month in advance. However, due to distressing personal circumstances I won’t go into here, I wasn’t able to travel on that train. I booked another ticket this morning- and despite trying several different services, there was no way I could get a reservation unless I travelled First Class for over £200. I tried to get reservations on three different services before starting to worry that perhaps they didn’t make reservations for on-the-day travel – the language was unclear I had no option but to take my chances.

This time, I knew I had no reservation and went looking for a seat. I found one that looked as though it hadn’t been claimed – but that was only because the woman who’d booked it waited – bizarrely – almost half an hour to claim it. By which point all but one of the unreserved or unclaimed seats on the train had been taken.

Unlike Virgin, GWR actually put their staff to work finding seats for passengers, asking passengers to point out spare seats next to them to those without seats and making regular announcements about where seats could be found.

For the first three hours of my journey, I moved between seats that were between reservations (sometimes for only 20 minutes) and the corridor. Sometimes the corridor had up to 15 people crammed into it (GWR assure me there is no legal limit to the number of people that can be carried on a train).

Once I had secured a seat, I wanted some food. To get to the cafe several carriages away, I had to hop over buggies with children in them and step over toddlers playing in the aisles. When I tried to place my order I discovered they had signature-only card machines and as my signature has long been obscured due to the fact that card signature strips seem to accommodate few types of ink, I couldn’t get any food. As I braced myself for the return obstacle course, I changed upon one of their managers: like their Twitter staff, she was charming, calming, kind and accommodating. She listened to me, agreed the journey was terrible and gave me vouchers with which to purchase food. In the 30 seconds it took for me to thank her and hand my vouchers over to the cafe they had closed and I had to wait for a whole new stock to be unpacked. The cafe manager was amiable and chatty and did his best to cheer me up. But it was hard to enjoy my food or regain my seat feeling anything less than extreme anxiety. GWR are compensating for a poor service with great staff – but the stress on passengers remains.

Everyone else is doing it – why can’t you?

There are bigger questions here than simply whether staff help people find seats. For example whether train companies should be overbooking long-distance trains in this way – I can see the sense for short journeys, but very few people will actually want to go without a seat for several hours. Or why aren’t ‘you might have to stand for two hours’ seats cheaper , as they are in theatres? Why aren’t they just marked as ‘standing day tickets’ from the outset instead of making people go through the ‘would you like to book a seat’ charade?

There’s also the question of why – in 2017 – they aren’t making wider use of technology:

  • Why aren’t they showing live booking data – such as which services have seats available to reserve – on their websites like theatres and cinemas have done for a couple of decades?
  • Why – when gig promoters and airlines can manage it – have most train companies failed to discover e-tickets? Only Virgin seem to do this. Travellers shouldn’t have to waste the time they spent getting to the station early so they csn find a seat queuing to collect tickets.
  • Why aren’t they designing their apps so people can see which carriages have the most available seating?
  • Why aren’t they exploring technologies – well tested in other industries – that would allow them to provide an at-a-glance view of where reservations haven’t been claimed, seats are free/about to become free?
  • Why on earth don’t GWR have chip and pin machines when most other places have moved on to contactless?

Any other service provider would either be implementing these measures or would have them in place already. A UK train ticket seems to be just about the only think you can spend over £100 on with no hope of care, customer service, or interest in generating repeat business.

Your B2B Marketing Content is Probably Sexist. Here’s why.

Last week, while watching the video of Mary Beard’s excellent London Review of Books Winter Series lecture on Women in Power, I was struck by her focus on language – in particular on the way in which language which excludes women from power has become part of our everyday lexicon. Women, Beard points out, are often described as “grabbing” or “seizing” power – in other words, taking something that doesn’t belong to them. What’s most striking here is not the use of exclusionary language, but the fact that it is normal enough to pepper the headlines of most popular newspapers, reinforcing at a subliminal level, the idea that women shouldn’t hold positions of power.

As a B2B content specialist, I couldn’t help thinking about how often marketing language operates in the same way. While brochures, web pages and video scripts may not address the issue of women in power, they do often contain language that is subtly – and perhaps even unconsciously – angled towards men. Pick up the nearest piece of B2B collateral and you will probably find several examples of aggressive sporting or military metaphors. Obviously, women play sports and join the military, but such language is defined by and associated with male-dominated culture – and using it is a way of claiming the B2B marketing world as a male dominated space. Professor Raina Brands has explored the way on which such language promotes gender bias in her research.

This problem goes right back to the methodologies we used to define our audience and plan our content. As B2B marketers – particularly for the tech and telecoms industries – it’s easy to fall back on the idea that in a male-dominated industry, the only people we are marketing to are middle-aged, white men. As a result, we frequently craft our content in their image. On a recent client project for example, I was reviewing the first draft of some Day in the Life scenarios and was struck by the fact that all the characters in senior roles were depicted by middle-aged white men. I requested a change – but the creative team came up against a challenge: it’s incredibly difficult to find imagery of anyone other than an old, white male in a setting that lends them gravitas and power. Women and people of colour tend to be represented as youthful and up-and-coming. For our project, we managed to portray a more diverse range of individuals in the end, but the incident stayed with me as a stark lesson in just how strongly we associate business decision-making with one kind of person.

So, what do we do about it? Being more aware of the language we use is the first step. B2B marketers often make it their mission to eliminate industry jargon, so add gendered jargon to your hit-list too. Scan your copy for exclusionary terms and exchange them for more inclusive language: regardless of gender, not everyone reading sees their business as a military operation. When planning what you’re going to write, make a conscious effort to think about your audience. How do you imagine them? If you find yourself imagining a group who all fit exactly the same demographic, think again. Really question yourself and your motivations: are you taking the easiest option? Are you allowing unconscious bias to guide you? As you read, think about how people of different ages, genders and cultural backgrounds might read and react to your copy. It’s important to think beyond the words, too. Does the imagery alongside your content reinforce stereotypes by only reflecting white people, nuclear families, binary gender and heterosexual couples? If so, you could be weakening its impact.

Above all, be brave. Take this thinking to the rest of your team by going back to your stakeholder profiles and questioning their diversity. Start pushing back at suppliers of stock imagery and make it clear that they need to reflect a more diverse range of people at all organisational levels. Addressing these issues isn’t just good feminism: it’s good marketing, too. As we get better at distributing power fairly, we need to think carefully about the choices we make to ensure we’re addressing the B2B audience in its entirety. Which means thinking beyond men in suits.

 

Happy Now?

This is an excellent blog post, much of which is very close to how I, and I imagine many others, are feeling about the mess we are in now. Read it.

Katyboo1's Weblog

It is day four in the Big Brexit house.

I had hoped after Friday’s absolute catastrophe of a day that the country might somehow magically rally over the weekend. I mean, when you plunge your country into possible ruin on the promise of a golden future that will allow it to rise like a phoenix from the flames, you have a plan, right?

As it turns out, you don’t. The only person that seems to have any plan at all, and be acting on it rather than just spouting meaningless Churchillian rhetoric is Nicola Sturgeon, and I can’t even vote for her.

I was distraught and angry on Friday. I had hoped to feel better by today. Instead I am running on barely controlled rage and getting more enraged by the moment.

Here are a few things I am furious about:

Firstly, leave voters telling me to calm down. I’m sorry…

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