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10 April 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:24pm

Power dressing

By Helen Lewis

Theatre is nothing if it is not alive. As The Crucible’s John Proctor made his final declaration of resistance to the Salem witch-hunters – “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” – a truly Biblical rainstorm began outside the Yard theatre in Hackney Wick. We all heard it: the Yard is built out of salvaged materials, and the storm sounded like hammers falling on the metal roof. It was an unforgettable, unasked-for flourish.

The publicity for the show majored on the fact that John Proctor would be played by a woman, Caoilfhionn Dunne, though the role was still John, not Jane. In the end, Dunne’s gender felt irrelevant – wonderfully so. With slicked-back hair, alternately in colonial breeches and a modern suit and tie, her John Proctor was a portrait of both human frailty and ultimate nobility. Truly radical: a woman allowed to be an everyman.

The Crucible is one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to produce. The sprawling cast-list – a budgetary nightmare – was here managed through extensive doubling. To avoid confusion, chairs with name plates were laid out at the start. Later, characters’ entrances were announced on a video screen. Miller’s extensive background notes and stage
directions were narrated by the cast, an approach now becoming the norm.

This was a tense, taut production, directed with clarity by Jay Miller and acted with tenderness and subtlety. The only missteps were the gimmicks. An odd karaoke interjection was bad enough, but the looming presence of actors in alien masks and hoodies at crucial moments was faintly ridiculous. Surely the point of The Crucible is that there is nothing supernatural about this horror story?

The Yard’s version didn’t labour the contemporary parallels, which is probably for the best, since the message of The Crucible – “Is the accuser always holy now?” – is profoundly out of step with the #MeToo moment. The cast start in tracksuits, before John and Elizabeth Proctor appear in historical dress. The girls, led by sadistic, love-torn adolescent Abigail Williams, wear the kind of sister-wife prairie dresses I’m told are back in fashion (although I will enter a nunnery before I succumb to something that looks like my mother’s worst Laura Ashley maternity outfit, so help me God). Still, I love the alienation inherent in dabbling with period dress but not committing fully to it. Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels: women through history have suffered and sweated through corsets, heavy skirts and a whole wardrobe of constricting, disabling garments.

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That brings me to Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls, newly revived at the National Theatre by director Lyndsey Turner. God, this is a strange, brilliant, thing. I loved it. It starts with Marlene, an archetypal 1980s ball-buster, in gold lamé and shoulder pads like battleship hulls.

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Newly promoted in the Top Girls employment agency, she is hosting a dinner for Pope Joan, the explorer Isabella Bird, Japanese imperial courtesan Lady Nijo, Hell-raiding Flemish warrior Dull Gret and “patient Griselda” from the Canterbury Tales. They’ve all been worked over by the patriarchy, although few of them will admit it. Nijo brightly tells the rest it’s easier to give up girl babies than boys; Griselda explains that her husband was well within his rights to torment her. Even Pope Joan is brutally matter-of-fact about being stoned to death after unexpectedly giving birth in the middle of a procession through Rome.

The first scene is an assault on the senses. There is frequent (borderline irritating) overtalk, as the women compete to tell their stories. As they eat, their clothes silently testify to the restrictions on their lives: Nijo’s swooping sleeves, Griselda’s knee-length hair, Isabella trussed up in leather stays. Only Gret – who got to do, rather than be – wears anything vaguely practical: a huge breastplate and sturdy shoes.

It’s the ambition of this play that strikes you, as much as its oddness. In the remaining scenes, we meet Angie – Marlene’s awkward, slow niece – and see exactly what Marlene had to leave behind to achieve her version of success. The National’s big budgets mean that actors don’t have to double up as the historical and 1980s women, but the parallels between them are still striking. Like Dull Gret, Marlene and her aspirational female colleagues have armour of their own: pastel blouses and white spike heels. They counsel women not to reveal that they are engaged at job interviews: who wants to hire someone who will leave to have a baby?

Marlene has succeeded only by rejecting the messy physicality of women’s lives, dumping an unwanted child on her mousy sister and failing to visit her elderly mother for years on end. No empathy, no caring labour, no domestic entanglements; this is the price of her triumph. She isn’t a Top Girl, she’s an Ersatz Alpha Male.

Like I say, brace for oddness. Top Girls is a surreal, uneven, idiosyncratic piece of virtuosity. It is not linear. It isn’t always audible. But in its attempt to dramatise the compromises that women make to survive in a world built for men, it feels eternally relevant. 

The Crucible
Arthur Miller
The Yard, London E9

Top Girls
Caryl Churchill
National Theatre, London SE1