I first saw Apologia when it premiered at the Bush Theatre in 2009 – and it is a testament to the play’s weight and complexity that I got something entirely different out of the play in 2017.
Apologia is about the choices society forces women – specifically feminists – to make and the judgement that is passed down when women choose equality and feminism over what society expects of them as women. The central character, Kristin, is a celebrated art historian, academic, author and activist who has held firm to her convictions since the 1970s and has prioritised her career and activism over family life. In 2009, she was British, and I loathed her, I know not why because the performance was great. In 2017, she is an American who has adopted the UK as her home, played with vigour by Stockard Channing.
Channing’s Kristin is loud, sharp, and takes no prisoners: exactly what she’d have needed to be to reach eminence in male-dominated academia. And yet she also exudes a certain nervousness and physical fragility that betrays her battle scars and the sacrifices she has had to make. The action opens as she is preparing for her birthday party and the arrival of her friend Hugh (Desmond Barrit), her sons Peter and Simon (both played by Joseph Millson) and their partners Trudi (Laura Carmichael) and Claire (Freema Agyeman).
It’s clear from the outset that Kristin has a fractured relationship with her children – and has taken refuge in an echo chamber that shares her ideals, as represented by her fellow warrior, Hugh. Channing perfectly conveys Kristin’s spiky anxiety, moving testily around the stage, unsure about facing her offspring, and spoiling for a fight.
Both Kristin’s sons have built their lives around opposing the mother they feel abandoned them: The eldest, Peter, by entering wholeheartedly into the corporate world and by betrothing himself to a woman who is everything his mother is not: Christian, stereotypical and happy to be a ‘supportive wife’ – a basic bitch, basically. Simon, by refusing to lead a functional life and partnering with a seemingly superficial television actress. And yet, they cannot escape her: each craves her approval in his own way and their chosen partners are more like her than they realise, particularly Claire, a born fighter who prioritises her career over Simon in the end.
While the past bubbles under the surface, there is an immediate source of tension: Kristin has just published a memoir, in which neither of her children is mentioned. This sets the scene for what, in my view, is an exploration of the double standard society sets for women when they are parents. Kristin is at pains to explain that her memoir is an exploration of her professional life: it does not cover her personal life at all, except where it overlapped with her work. Whereas for a man, this omission would largely go ignored, for a woman, it is unforgivable. Kristin’s children are deeply hurt at having been filtered out of her life. Over the course of the dinner party, the audience learns that Kristin did not abandon her children as they claim: their father came and took them, and she chose not to pursue. They maintained contact, spending holidays together. Kristin’s crime, it turns out, is not abandoning her children, but failing to meet their standards for motherhood.
Desmond Barrit is outstanding as Hugh, Kristin’s fellow activist, always ready with a glass of wine and a sharp, witty phrase. He gets the biggest laughs in the production – and more than once Laura Carmichael seemed to be struggling not to laugh, too. But there’s another, less comfortable side to Hugh, too. If Kristin represents the feminist perspective, he represents her LGBT counterparts. Elderly, comical, poverty-stricken at at times condescended to, it’s hard not to see his Hugh as a representation of how the LGBT activists of the 1960s have fared in relation to their feminist sisters. Looking beyond the laughs, it’s plain that Hugh is treated not only with affection, but with condescension, too. The last, he is portrayed as living vicariously through others, a sexless existence hinted at by his parting shot to Claire to enjoy her upcoming erotic tryst. For me, Hugh represents those who have suffered for their activism and who have seen their contributions ignored and their talents left behind.
I generally enjoy Laura Carmichael’s performances, but I think she was handed something of a poisoned chalice playing American Trudi opposite a genuine American. I couldn’t help feeling she deserved better. Freema Agyeman, on the other hand, is wonderful as Claire, a woman as strong, feisty and in charge of her own destiny as Kristin.
In 2009, I had very different feelings about it. In one of the key scenes, where Kristin’s younger son Simon blames her for a miscommunication which led to him spending a night alone in Florence and narrowly escaping sexual assault, I empathised with him, loathing Kristin with all the fury of a child who has been let down by their parents. Simon is a man whose life is marred by the fact that his parents turned out not to be the all-powerful superhumans he wanted to guide and protect him. In my 20s, I felt that way too.
This time, decidedly closer to middle age than adolescence, I took Kristin’s side. How was it her fault that her ex-husband miscommunicated the travel dates? In a world before mobile phones, how was she to learn about the whereabouts of her son? How dare he blame her, hate her, judge her not just for the misunderstanding but for her failure to stick to the role society had arbitrarily assigned to her. A mother would have been there, he spits. But he means the fantasy mother women are told they should be.
With a feminist reading, the conclusion of the play is deeply unsatisfying in that it reveals how society has punished many of the women who spearheaded feminism. In the era of “choice” where we tell young women they are free to make more traditional life choices, we also often tell women who rejected those choices in the past and lived with the brutal consequences that they are monsters. At the end of Apologia – rejected and alone – Kristin is undeservedly suffering the fate of such a monster, despite having paved the way for the confident women who judge her. 10 years on, Apologia is more brutal than it was perhaps intended to be. And I for one like it that way.
NB – I caught up on a couple of broadsheet reviews of the production – both inevitably by middle-aged-to-elderly white men and was quite shocked by how comprehensively they ignored any kind of feminist reading of the work. Yet another reason why we need more diversity in theatre criticism.