Director Indhu Rubasingham has done some work I've really liked this year, but while doing that she was also putting together this pretty ambitious season of short plays, presented in two parts at the Tricycle. Women, Power and Politics' first half focuses on the past, from the Elizabethan era to the 1980s, although in actual fact two of the four plays deal with the latter. First up, Stella Gonet and Niamh Cusack play the title roles in The Milliner and the Weaver, Marie Jones' take on suffragettes. The two very different Belfast women have come together through their work trying to get women the vote, but a different kind of politics gets in the way when they take opposing sides in the issue of Home Rule. Despite the threat of violence just outside the front door it's a rather gentle start to the evening, the womens' relationship largely characterised by deep mutual respect, and was probably my least favourite of the night.
These two actresses rather dominate the evening, and Gonet is straight back on stage to play a version of Margaret Thatcher in Moira Buffini's Handbagged, examining her relationship with the Queen. Each woman is played by two actresses: Kika Markham the present-day Queen, Claire Cox her '80s version; Heather Craney is Thatcher in her glory days while the Stella Gonet version is noticeably dishevelled. Buffini imagines what the two women's weekly private meetings might have been like, and focuses on a couple of occasions when the Queen came perilously close to publicly criticising Thather's policies (something which she's constitutionally not allowed to do.) It's the funniest of the four plays and also the one that I thought most successfully used the one-act format, it really feels as if Buffini has made the point she wants to in the short time.
After the interval it's time for the other Queen Elizabeth, and Cusack returns for a mesmerising performance in Rebecca Lenkiewicz's The Lioness. In two incidents spanning her reign, we see her making short shrift of two men who posed a threat to her power, first the Scottish minister John Knox (Tom Mannion) who wrote an anti-Catholic pamphlet that was actually aimed at her sister, but which by criticising female rulers undermined Elizabeth's authority; and then in later life, her much younger favourite the Earl of Essex (Oliver Chris) whose eventual treasonous acts led to his execution at her command. It's a beautifully written, directed and acted piece, and despite Elizabeth I having been the subject of many a dramatisation, I'd have been happy to watch Niamh Cusack play her in a full-length play. This is kind of the problem as well though, as the scope is a bit much for a single act, and although Oliver Chris is rather swoonily handsome in the role of Essex, I think in the constraints of a half-hour piece it might have been better if Lenkiewicz had concentrated on just the Knox incident, it being the part of the story that isn't as frequently dramatised.
We're back in the '80s as Lucy Kirkwood takes on Greenham Common in the final segment, which opens in the camp itself, before showing us how the protests become the catalyst for the failing marriage between pregnant Helen (Claire Cox) and Bob (Chris) to finally disintegrate. The baby she had at Greenham grows up and in the present day James (John Hollingworth) is in his turn campaigning against climate change, when he encounters Sophie (Lara Rossi) who has never even heard of Greenham. Bloody Wimmin is impressively done but again it feels a bit rushed trying to get that much into 30 minutes.
In between the plays there's verbatim accounts, edited by Gillian Slovo, from women in politics, and these provide some interesting vignettes, while Kika Markham's Ann Widdecombe impression was scarily uncanny. Of tonight's batch of short plays, I would say Handbagged was my favourite, although The Lioness is also very impressive.
Women, Power and Politics Part 1: Then by Marie Jones, Moira Buffini, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Lucy Kirkwood and Gillian Slovo is in repertory until the 17th of July at the Tricycle Theatre.