We Are Not a Muse

The image of the tortured brooding man, bewitched, bothered and bewildered by some winsome and naïve woman, is long burnt into of literature. Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff has a lot to answer for. Traditionally, these great and tortured men (quite often thinly disguised versions of the writers themselves) drive the plot while inspired by (and despairing over) a beautiful muse – only to abandon her when the next one comes along. Sometimes, characters in some of the greatest feminist literature in history suffer the same fate. In We Are Not A Muse, Imogen Hayes and Signe Lury, playing publishers Tite and Snobbo, rip up and examine the politics and gender disparity of some of history’s authors, arguing whether or not feminist literature could benefit from a healthy hack of bowdlerisation, giving all those winsome muses endings more suited to the patriarchy. And if not, it matters little: to borrow a line from Alan Bennett – “winsome, lose some”.

An inventive hour of smart jokes and clever stagecraft

The piece begins with the pair of literary agents sitting besuited and bestride their domain, telling us that they ‘know better’. If a book does not meet with their exacting standards, it is put through the shredder (complete with a sound effect that sounds like a pub bore deep into his fifth hour of mansplaining). We get three books to rip up: a sharp, clever telling of the story that may be familiar to audiences, rapidly followed by the edited, ‘improved’ version. Despite the risk of testing repetition, both Hayes and Lury have enough charm and wit to keep things inventive and sparky. There’s very smart stage craft on display, too: when the women have to play three characters in a single scene, they transfer the lead role between actors in a simple, but very inventive way.

The seductive power of brooding male leads is highlighted early on when Hayes and Signe have a disagreement about who should play the male part – and who gets stuck with the apparently less fun ‘girl’ part. But in truth, the parts are juggled between the pair with verve and energy, with fun dance, and clever puppets: a highlight is Old Father Thames promising his daughter much (and presumably telling her that the world is her Oyster Card).

The title We Are Not A Muse perhaps promises slightly more – or at least something slightly different than it suggests: it would be fun to see Tite and Snobbo proven wrong and see the female characters regain their agency. This is not the case, which feels like something of a missed opportunity. What is on stage is funny, smart and fast-paced: an inventive hour of smart jokes and clever stagecraft.

Reviews by Andrew Allen

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The Blurb

'If we don't like a book, then we put it in the shredder; then we take out all the good bits and we put it back together!' What makes literature great? This raucous romp through a selection of short stories and poetry takes on the patriarchal world of publishing with a satirical twist. Tite and Snobbo are on a literary rampage to make books great again. With physical theatre, puppetry and a heavy dose of irony, we take on men and their muses in an exploration of how to make literature really sell.