This week Greenwich Theatre opens its eagerly awaited new studio space with the world premiere of a new play, presented in partnership with emerging company CultureClash Theatre. Shortlisted for this year’s first ever RED Women’s Theatre Award, Cassiah Joski-Jethi’s Under My Thumb tells a dark story of sexism taken to a horrible extreme, throwing a spotlight on the continuing discrimination that exists in today’s society and issuing a powerful call for change.
The play paints a dark, dystopian picture of the world, but reading the script there are many, many moments when links with our own daily lives are frighteningly clear.
It is hard to believe that at a time when a woman is leading the race for the most powerful political position in the world, a female receptionist working for a high profile UK financial organisation could be sent home from work for not wearing high heels – but that is the world of contradiction that we live in. Earlier this year Nicola Thorp was sent home from a job at PwC for refusing to go out and spend her own money on high heels. She was told that her smart, flat, black shoes were not appropriate for her job and was laughed at when she asked whether the male receptionists were also expected to wear heels.
In Under My Thumb, the world has reached a crisis point in gender discrimination and women who speak out against any form of sexism – from a lack of promotion opportunities at work or daily cat-calling in the street right up to the worst criminal violence against women – are imprisoned and only released if they accept responsibility for the action taken against them. The play paints a dark, dystopian picture of the world, but reading the script there are many, many moments when links with our own daily lives are frighteningly clear.
The action of the play all takes place in a single prison cell, where five women have created a shared life together, all resisting the pressure to conform and choosing instead to find a dignity in continuing to assert their innocence and the guilt of the men who have acted against them. For these women, wearing certain clothes does not grant men permission to speak or act towards them in a certain way, being female should not restrict their potential at work, and speaking out against discrimination is the only way the world can ever be rebalanced. When a sixth prisoner is admitted to their cell it seems that she is just another woman brought down by the society outside, but she may not be all that she seems and their status quo may be about to change.
Producing this play in partnership with CultureClash, Greenwich Theatre’s Artistic and Executive Director James Haddrell described it as “an exciting moment for us in a number of ways. Firstly it launches our new studio theatre, so from now on we have the opportunity to present smaller, more intimate shows in the studio while larger scale shows take place on the main stage. We have built a strong reputation in the past five or six years as one of the country’s most fervent supporters of emerging theatre companies, and now some of those companies will be able to come to us with their first or second show and present it in the studio, before progressing and growing with us to produce larger scale theatre for the main stage. CultureClash are a company like that – this is their second show, following the small-scale Hannah and Hanna last year, and it marks a real development in aspiration and scale. Under our mentorship the company has now brought together a cast of six performers, commissioned a new script and secured funding from Arts Council England to support the project.”
“Secondly, the play follows a year of programming celebrating female theatre-makers. There is a drive from some of the major theatres in this country to balance the gender split on stage, where traditionally two thirds of performers are men, but we have chosen to go beyond that and support companies where the producers, writers or directors are women, developing the female theatrical leaders of the future.
“Finally this project is special for me. We co-produced the RED Women’s Theatre Awards back in March and I was one of the judges on the panel, so I have been aware of Cassiah’s script since then. At that stage it was a 30 minute short piece but I immediately knew we had discovered a bold new talent and an exciting play. I have worked with Cassiah since then to develop the script to a full-length piece, have worked with CultureClash producers Serin Ibrahim and Cassandra Hercules (both of whom will appear in the play) to bring together four more talented performers for the show, and CultureClash have invited a range of women and support workers connected to shelters and women’s charities to see the show and share their views with us. Once the production opens later this month we will be meeting audiences after every show to gather feedback, and are hoping to tour the play next year, so this could not be a more exciting way to launch our new studio theatre.”
The creation of a studio at Greenwich Theatre is part of a major refurbishment of the venue, supported by Royal Greenwich, and they are approaching the end of phase one of that work now. The theatre roof has been repaired, the whole building has been rewired, and they have carried out a range of front of house improvements. Alongside that, in light of the business successes over the past nine years, Haddrell commented that they are dramatically reducing a major historic debt, “with the local authority committed to negotiating a lease for us here in the building”.
With the studio already making waves in the theatre industry, a host of new productions emerging from the theatre to impact on the theatre scene across the UK, and the long-term tenancy in the building now confirmed, the future of theatre in Greenwich is looking bright.
Under My Thumb, 21 September-2 October
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