Laura Witz founded the Edinburgh-based Charlotte Productions in 2009 and has since brought numerous plays about female history to the Fringe, including 2012’s Miss Marchbanks. This year’s play found its initial inspiration in the introduction of wholemeal bread… Features Editor James T Harding thought it as the yeast he could do to find out how Laura plans to rise to the occasion this festival. (Cue Groan.)
I like the idea that something so seemingly trivial and in the midst of such tragic and overwhelming events, could still produce such a passionate outcry.
Tell us about the show.
"National Loaf is set in the immediate wake of the introduction of the new National Loaf as part of the revised rationing laws in Britain in 1942. Angry locals in one small town in the north of England are annoyed by how disgusting the new loaf is and horrified at the idea of eating wholemeal flour. The grocer, the baker and the butcher, all roles now filled by women due to the war, descend upon the local Rationing Officer’s office on the exact same day that an important Rationing Officer from down south is on his way to visit and a basket of black market goods has been left in the rationing office."
What inspired you to write about rationing?
"It was actually the concept of National Loaf that got me onto the subject. It was in an episode of The Great British Bake Off I think that they mentioned the loaf and the response it elicited in mid-war Britain. I like the idea that something so seemingly trivial and in the midst of such tragic and overwhelming events, could still produce such a passionate outcry. This rather silly potential subject matter led me to research the Loaf and rationing as a whole more thoroughly. The fact that rationing and home-front affairs would link so neatly with the story about women in the Second World War that I already wanted to write, made this the perfect angle to pursue."
What sort of research did you do for the play? Did most of the research take place before or after the first draft?
"Most of the research was done before I started any writing or even development of ideas for the play. Possibly the most exciting bit of research for me was buying a book of Second World War recipes, reading it, and making some of the recipes. The ridiculous suggestions they made, such as mock crab made from reconstituted dried eggs and salad cream, are hilarious. I didn’t make that one. I also did the usual reading in the area and I watched a significant amount of wartime comedy – a lot of Monty Python and Blackadder as well as less well-known dramas."
Charlotte Productions has produced several successful plays about women in history now. What are your views on how historical women are commonly portrayed? Is there anything you are hoping to change about that?
"I think that we as a culture like to create victims and that is often damaging and unrepresentative. It seems to have become fashionable to portray women in history as victims of circumstance and suggest they are utterly powerless. My research has always led me to find that reality was far from that simple and although they had fewer rights women, like any subculture, had a power and strength of their own. People are always people and they vary one person to another; this seems to have been no less true in history, why would it be?
"I also think that we sometimes deal somewhat irresponsibly with presenting a female history. We still live in a culture that believes the male story is mainstream and the female ‘niche’ (this was explicitly clear when the BBC’s Up the Women ran on BBC Four). I think writers and producers often use ‘an attempt to represent reality’ as a further way to marginalise or just not bother with female characters, suggesting that if women were invisible in that society, then it isn’t misogynist, it is just accurate to make dramas that have no women in them. This has further repercussions when they use the same justification to normalise, often just for titillation, assault and abuse of female characters. Of course in actual fact most of these stories are not in the least concerned with representing reality and many are even set in fantasy worlds that have nothing to do with ‘reality’. Realism becomes an excuse and a poor one at that since while we can never fully understand the past what we can understand and what we do have a responsibility towards is the present and modern-day women.
"It is my opinion that works of writers like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell and Margaret Oliphant and in fact countless others that we do not pay enough attention to, go a long way to countering this trope. Yet most of their writing, written for a patriarchal, paternal readership, was pushed into a romantic, didactic form. Ironically, whilst they had to write this way, modern-day readers use this romance as a reason to trivialise and overtly feminise these works of female writers.
"What I write, and what I hope to write, addresses this. Most of my plays are first and foremost comedies, written to entertain. Romance is a secondary or a non existent plot, and women are given the greatest attention and the narrative drive. I try to do justice to the powerful, wonderful women of our past whilst allowing the women onstage playing these roles to be funny and silly and not sexualised."
As the writer, what has your role been in the production of the show?
"I am also the director of this show so I have been in charge of bringing the work off the page as well. I think being the writer and director does remove a step from the process because I know what was intended and I understand the script fully. Sometimes however, this combination means I need to take a step back as it takes a lot of work to see the script you wrote through the eyes of a brand-new audience."