Theatre Review: A Girl and a Gun, Camden People’s Theatre

A complex, witty and thought-provoking look at the ambiguity of how women and violence are portrayed on screen

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down, Dear: A Festival of Feminism, A Girl and a Gun is performer and writer Louise Orwin’s challenge to Jean Luc Godard’s comment “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. It’s a witty and multi-layered show that sets out to highlight how the relationship between women and violence became an accepted, even glamorous, part of the movie experience.

Hollywood with its penetrating male gaze and fear of difference has long put women in the shadows when they’re not playing a wife or a victim (or, indeed both) and Orwin’s script aims to untangle the audience’s own coercion with this accepted narrative. A Girl and A Gun examines how the distance between what’s playing on a screen in front of you immediately gives you a different perspective on the events unfolding in front of your eyes as you sit munching popcorn in a dark cinema. Do these  images change when we’re confronted with in front of you on stage? Will the audience recognise what it means to a plot device and their own complicity in this on-screen given? There just a couple of the questions Louise Orwin is asking.

Each night alongside Louise is a ‘him’, played by a man who has no idea of the script or what will be demanded of him. The night I saw A Girl with A Gun, William Drew played ‘him’ and Drew – like those to come read his lines from an autocue and responded – or didn’t, there’s a caveat that he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to – to the stage directions. This involved him dressing as a cowboy, shooting toy guns and dancing. His responses were interesting – he doesn’t for example force Orwin to her knees as instructed and is uneasy pulling the plastic trigger.

Hollywood’s construct of femininity, of women as victims, is played out by Orwin at the end with a montage of several of the ways women in films so often meet their grisly end. This is followed by a scene where Orwin questions women’s own responses and involvement in the on-screen game. She has until that point played a sexy flirt with a Texan drawl obsessed with her hero and his gun. She suddenly drops the drawl and walks off stage, leaving Drew in the spotlight to explain her motives.

The performance is filmed and we see it on the projectors behinds the actors, asking us to confront how differently we respond to what’s on screen and real life in front of us.

This all sounds terribly worthy, and of course Orwin’s show confronts serious issues, but A Girl and A Gun is also fun, with a gentle humour and real wit. It’s a complex show that would hold up to several viewings with its unravelling of mixed messages that is an ambiguous and – at times, confusing –  as the images and screen mythology Orwin is deconstructing.

A Girl and A Gun | Camden People’s Theatre | Until 3 October 2015

Book Review: The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women by George Gissing

Why is it that we continually have to look back a hundred plus years ago to find ballsy female literary heroes, protagonist who go against the grain of what is expected of them, who are willing to push boundaries and stride out of their own? 

Women with a fiery independence, who are unwilling to conform to the times they live in, seem  sparse in modern literature. Admittedly, what we have to push against is less visible than a century ago, but if anything that means our voices – including our fictional ones – need to be louder to help reflect back at us what society keeps missing. I can’t think of many female characters from contemporary books I’ve read recently that with grit. The only one that springs to mind is the heroine of Where’d You Go Bernadette, a character who was more defined by her career than her husband and who is genuinely different and unafraid to rip up the How Women Should Behave rulebook.

Rachel Cooke asks a similar question in this Guardian article where she questions the lack of interesting, intelligent (dare I say feisty?) single women in fiction. In the feature, Cooke singles out George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women as being one of the few works of fiction where spinsters are, if not happier than their married counterparts, certainly no unhappier. And it was a recommendation worth taking. The Odd Women is a brilliant read, uncomfortable at times, bleak for the most part, it’s also fascinating and compelling. Distilled to its essence, The Odd Women is about money, marriage and manners and two self-sufficient women who care more about books than bonnets.

The Odd Women of the title are odd in number; at the tail end of the 19th Century there were half a million more women in the UK than men and as a result there were thousands of ‘spare’ female, destined for a life as a governess or nurse, eking out their pennies in lonely, draughty lodgings. The protagonists, Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot, are also odd as in different, they refused to accept their lot in a society that reduced single women to sad wretches who pined for a man and life of embroidery.

The women in Gissing’s book are battling against a patriarchal Victorian society, a world so rigid and staid that its oppression, even from the pages of a book, feels as great as the dense London fog that used to suffocate the city (as described in a powerful scene by Gissing). Fighting hard against these narrow expectations and recruiting foot soldiers by the day, Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn run a charity that encourages young women to think beyond marriage and broaden their career horizons by equipping them with skills such as typewriting (which sounds as revolutionary as flower arranging, but at the time armed women with the weapons needed to infiltrate an office, much to the chagrin of many a male office clerk as brilliantly observed in this novel).

Amongst Rhoda and Mary’s acquaintances are the three surviving Madden sisters – Alice, Virginia and Monica – who Rhoda first met years ago in Clevedon when their father and siblings were alive.  Left orphaned while still young, the women have struggled to survive, taking gruelling jobs for little money, the hard toil wearing them down to an extent that shocks Rhoda when she meets them again in London. Monica, the youngest and prettiest is exhausted by thirteen hour days in a drapery and dismayed at the future ahead of her, and is determined to marry and avoid the fate of her two spinster sisters who live miserable half-lives. On one of her Sundays off, Monica meets Mr Widdowson, a dour, but seemingly kind man many years older than her. He has money and a nice house in Herne Hill and is so terribly persistent (some would say stalkery) that after a brief courtship, Monica agrees to marry him. Bad move, Mon.

Not that she really stood a chance. Marriage in Gissing’s world rarely ends well. He had two disastrous marriages himself and he wishes the same fate of most of his characters; marriage literally kills on more than one occasion.

The Odd Women is a wonderful, unpredictable, slightly idiosyncratic book and like nothing I’ve read before. It’s like an amalgamation of Dickens, Gaskell and the Brontes rewritten by George Orwell (who, incidentally, was a big Gissing fan). Gissing is not a pretty writer, there is rarely poetry in his prose, but his very economy is what makes the book so compelling and the plot is so neat that you barely notice there is one until it all begins to fall in place so beautifully.

It may even be called an early feminist novel, although I would dispute that; Gissing may have thought himself a frightful radical – and some of his ideas no doubt brought forth the smelling salts in certain circles – but underneath his boho bravado he’s as conformist as his main male character Everard Barfoot. There’s an uncomfortable moment when Everard is advocating hitting women who have done wrong, a statement Rhoda agrees with to a degree. There also prevails an idea that there are absolute feminine traits that women must battle against, that they must overcome their own femaleness in order to become equal to men – something Rhoda and Mary believe as much as Everard. Their opinion of many of their gender is as low as most men’s at the time and sisters are very much doing it for themselves; Rhoda and Mary couldn’t give a burning bra for working class women – theirs is a middle class gender fight.

Despite the bleakness, there’s something strangely uplifting about The Odd Women which I think is due to Rhoda, who may have her heart broken, but whose self-sufficiency and determination mean you can leave her at the end and know she’s going to be OK, if not exactly skipping off into the sunset. And doing OK in Gissing’s world is pretty much nirvana.

by Suzanne Elliott