Eileen Atkins, star of new comedy The Female Of The Species, spoke of her sympathy for Germaine Greer following the show’s press night.
Greer, the feminist intellectual, cultural critic and author of books including The Female Eunuch, described the play, which is inspired by an incident in which she was taken hostage by a student, as “threadbare” in an interview with The Times earlier this week. She went on to say “[playwright Joanna] Murray-Smith is an insane reactionary who boasts that she has not read a single feminist text. She holds feminism in contempt.” Though she was invited to the press night of The Female Of The Species, Greer chose not to attend.
Atkins, one of British theatre’s most respected practitioners, spoke to Official London Theatre, saying she could see Greer’s point of view: “If I was her, I wouldn’t go and see it either. If, as an actress, I’d been held hostage somewhere and then somebody had made a comedy out of it, then I would be upset. But as far as the whole thing about feminism, I really think we can laugh at it a bit more now.”
The headlines and stories caused by Greer’s outburst, Murray Smith confirmed, had affected the build up to what was already a stressful situation, opening a new play in the heart of the West End. “I felt that it was a distraction,” she told Official London Theatre, “and I was kind of irritated that it distracted from what I think the play is all about. From that point of view I also found it annoying that she had formed an opinion of the play without having read it and formed an opinion of me without ever having met me, but what can you do? After a week of absolute hysteria I actually let it all go and had a good time tonight.”
The same couldn’t be said for Atkins, who described the stress of press night as “like a car crash really; it’s horrifying and it gets worse instead of better”. Co-star Anna Maxwell Martin agreed about press night pain – “you just want it to be over with, but it went fine” – but was optimistic about the show’s future: “It’s been packed during previews and people have really laughed and really enjoyed it. We just hope that they go away and tell other people that they’ve enjoyed it and we get an audience. The West End’s a very tricky beast, you know.”
The Female Of The Species tells the story of Margot Mason (Atkins), an arrogant feminist intellectual suffering with writer’s block. When student Molly (Maxwell Martin) enters the icon’s apartment, it has less to do with needing academic advice and more to do with taking revenge on the woman she holds responsible for ruining her life. With Margot handcuffed and Molly toting a pistol, a string of characters arrive, all of whom have suffered at the hands of Margot’s feminist theories.
The farcical comedy was first staged in Melbourne in 2006. It opened at the Vaudeville on 16 July to an audience including Keanu Reeves, Sir Ian McKellen and Neil Kinnock.