Before it has even opened, new comedy The Female Of The Species has hit the headlines care of an outburst from Germaine Greer. Matthew Amer talks to playwright Joanna Murray Smith and finds there is more to her than feminist baiting.
“I certainly didn’t want to write a play about Germaine Greer. I would not have the courage; I don’t have the desire.” Australian playwright Joanna Murray Smith, tired after a long day’s rehearsal, is adamant about this point. Greer, who allegedly has not even read Murray Smith’s play The Female Of The Species, is less than enamoured with the comedy which takes its inspiration from the famous feminist’s life.
In 2000, the outspoken author of best-selling feminist tract The Female Eunuch was held captive in her own home by a female student. “The true life incident wasn’t funny, it was tragic,” says Murray Smith. “The true life incident was an unstable young woman who held Germaine Greer up for reasons unknown.”
Yet the image of “the older feminist icon being held captive by a younger woman who kind of blames her for her own life going wrong and blames the ideology that she has been espousing that has effectively changed the way society worked” got the creative juices of Australia’s leading playwright flowing.
Though the inspiration for The Female Of The Species came from Greer’s experience, and the lead character, played by Eileen Atkins, shares some of Greer’s characteristics, Murray Smith is very clear that the play is not about the critic, author and social commentator. In her mind, the difference between inspiration and biography is clearly defined. It does, however, explore Greer’s line of work: “Feminism has been around for quite a while now, it has been by far the most influential ‘ism’ of my own generation in terms of changing my life and shaping it, but it’s been around for long enough to have fun with it. I think that we can have a laugh at feminism’s expense without denying the importance of it.” If feminism was a child, you get the feeling she would consider it ‘big enough and ugly enough to look after itself’. She continues: “From my point of view, I thought it would be entertaining to write a play about those issues that are normally considered in a very serious way, and be able to entertain audiences, but be able to take them into that territory, which is, in lots of ways, difficult territory, but also territory which is pertinent to all our lives.”
"It feels like you’re walking down the Strand completely naked… and that’s not a good feeling"
Some may claim that in criticising feminism, Murray Smith is stumbling onto holy ground; Greer, it seems, is certainly rattled by it. To look at the antipodean playwright – tall, slim, elegant in a long black dress – one might think she would be worried about treading on toes. But there is a steeliness to her, and a certain Aussie-ness that makes her unafraid of speaking her mind regardless of whose feathers might be rustled. The mother of three is not aggressively offensive, but sees no need to shy away from asking difficult questions, which may be why she works so well with The Female Of The Species director Roger Michell.
“Working with him on something which is kind of debunking hard-line ideology,” she smiles, “and it would be the same for any ‘ism’ not just feminism, is very pleasurable because he laughs, as I laugh, at dogmatism and those strands of society of blinkered ideology. We’re on the same wavelength on that regard.”
The working relationship between playwright and director could be a tricky affair, with both trying to shape the production as they see fit. While Murray Smith admits that “there are times when I feel like I am the force behind the play and everyone should be listening to me,” she is also humble enough to acknowledge the importance of the director: “A lot of playwrights will kill me for saying this, but I don’t know that the playwright is always the best authority on the play. I think sometimes the director knows better, so as a playwright you have to second guess your own opinion as well.” Murray Smith has just returned to England, having left Michell to shape his production, and is both pleased and cautious about the different directions the show has taken. She is confident, though, that everything will be resolved amicably by press night.
Playwright and director first worked together on Murray Smith’s previous London outing, Honour, which was staged at the National Theatre in 2003. Her first production in the capital was an uncomfortable affair; she didn’t know anyone, didn’t know the city and it was being staged at a venue she had idolised since the periods of her childhood that she had spent in London. She was afraid, she says, that her play was not good enough for the National. There was also the small matter of leaving behind the Australian summer to prepare a piece that would open in the middle of an English winter. “Crossing that Hungerford Bridge every morning, clutching my coffee to walk to rehearsals,” she shivers, “I’ll never forget that.”
Honour also introduced her to two of Britain’s most talented actors, Atkins and Anna Maxwell Martin, who both return to work with Murray Smith in The Female Of The Species. It appears to the outsider as though the playwright is building up a small British family of colleagues that she can return to for future London productions. But while it is definitely a plus for Murray Smith to have friends around her when she leaves her family on the other side of the world, the casting of the two actresses, she assures me, was purely because they fitted the roles perfectly. The fact that they worked together previously was a bonus.
"I feel a colossal sense of responsibility and with that comes absolute intense panic"
Murray-Smith certainly seems in good spirits when we meet. The day’s rehearsal has just finished, and though she is clearly worn out she happily chats away in the very green green-room of the company’s north London rehearsal rooms. As the actors leave, they all seem equally happy; Maxwell Martin pretending to do a puppet show, Sam Kelly chatting about crudités. “I’m not sure whether it’s a good sign,” smiles Murray Smith, referring to the feeling in rehearsals. “They’ve been going too well. I have the director I always wanted to have for this play, I have the dream cast, I have a superb designer, I’m going into a lovely theatre. All the elements are there. If it doesn’t work – and it may not work, because that’s the nature of theatre – I can’t say it’s because one element was not up to scratch.
“It’s the best of all possible worlds for a playwright,” she continues, “because you feel like you’re in immensely capable hands with these wonderful, professional and acclaimed actors, and at the same time I’m learning from them, I’m learning about the play and I’m learning about comedy.”
It may sound odd to hear the playwright say she is still learning about a piece that she originally wrote two years ago, but Murray Smith fervently adheres to Tom Stoppard’s theory that a play is never finished, it is only ever abandoned. “That’s kind of the frustration, but it’s also the excitement of theatre,” she says. “The play keeps changing, even for the writer. It’s always a new entity, every time you see it, which is the thrill and the horror. It’s terrifying.” Quite how terrifying is hard to comprehend, yet Murray Smith tries to make it clear. “It feels like you’re walking down the Strand completely naked… and that’s not a good feeling,” she laughs, nervously.
As a writer, Murray Smith is multi-talented, having produced novels, lyrics, screenplays and poetry in addition to her theatre work, receiving awards and nominations across the board. Yet it is in the theatre world that she most feels this naked fear. In film, she says, you can be anonymous, provide the words and then disappear. In theatre the playwright is central and, for Murray Smith, this brings with it a weight of responsibility: “As a writer you feel enormous responsibility for everyone. You feel responsible for the outcome of the situation for the actors, for the producers, for the theatre owner. I worry for everyone because I’m grateful to them all for engaging with my active imagination and for believing in it. So you feel a colossal sense of responsibility and with that comes absolute intense panic.”
As if there is not already enough pressure piled onto Murray Smith’s shoulders, there is also the worry of The Female Of The Species being a new play, never before seen in the UK, going straight into a commercial West End theatre. It is not a situation that has happened very often recently, with producers preferring to stick with musicals, revivals and transfers of already successful productions. “It’s a real battle,” says Murray Smith as we talk about staging new work in Theatreland. “I can’t pinpoint blame anywhere really. I feel for producers, it has to be viable for them, but it does mean that you have to have people who have a real vision and a real belief that there is an audience there who has an appetite for creating a new canon, a new modern canon of writing for the stage. It’s a vast gamble.”
"I don’t know that Australia thinks very much about me at all to be honest, so I don’t feel I owe them anything"
Murray Smith’s work is swiftly becoming less of a leap of faith for producers. Honour was well received back in 2003, while earlier this year her adaptation of Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, commissioned and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, impressed critics and audiences in Coventry. A West End transfer is yet to be confirmed, but Murray Smith has been having meetings about the show’s journey south. It is more than possible that this autumn there will be two Murray Smith plays staged simultaneously in Theatreland.
Accolades like that should make a country sit up and take notice. To have one play on in the world’s greatest theatre district is impressive enough, the merest whiff of having two suggests someone exceptional. Yet when Murray Smith talks about her native Australia it is with a touch of sadness and a hint of resentment. Aside from her hometown theatre in Melbourne, where she enjoys tremendous support from an audience she both respects and loves, there is a sense that she feels let down by her country: “I don’t know that Australia thinks very much about me at all to be honest; I don’t know that anyone has high hopes for me. I don’t feel that at home, I don’t feel loved and adored, so I don’t feel I owe them anything. Australia is not wildly supportive of its artists. I don’t feel particularly hard done by compared to other people, I just think it’s not a wildly nurturing artistic community in lots of ways.”
London, by contrast, fills Murray Smith with excitement. Talk of shows she has seen while she has been over here has a sense of joy returning to her speech. “As an artist, you’re always hungry to see what other people are doing,” she explains, “because as much as you define yourself in accordance with what other people are doing, you’re also defining yourself against what other people are doing, so it’s all useful. It’s as useful seeing something you don’t like as seeing something you do. There’s always pleasures in London. I love this city, I adore it. And there’s always Selfridges! My husband would say ‘She’s such a fibber, putting Selfridges after theatre.’”
The Australian struggle compared with the terrifying fun of a West End opening provide the two sides to life as an artist as Murray Smith sees it; a life of stresses and strains where everyone has an opinion and some express them very vocally, but a life she would not change for anything: “The life of the playwright is an emotional and financial minefield. It’s got deep deep lows, but it has high highs. Even with all the lows – and I feel them very intensely; I’ve really fallen apart after bad experiences and not been able to write for quite a while. When Honour was on Broadway and failed, I was destroyed for about a year – I really do feel that every morning you wake up and think ‘I make my life from my fantasies. My working life comes from what I’m dreaming up inside my head. How lucky can you get?’ To me, that’s worth the pain.”