Bechdel Testing Life, The Bunker

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Women don’t always talk about men.
Women don’t always talk about men.
Women don’t always talk about men.

It bears repeating because it’s often forgotten, ignored or not believed. Popular culture is particularly deaf to the sentiment, and theatre still likes to rely on this inaccurate gender trope. Whilst this has been slowly changing for some time, particularly on the fringe, it’s still a problem.

Bechdel Theatre are one company fighting for a more realistic depiction of women on stage. Since 2015, they’ve asked audiences to let them know if a play passes the Bechdel test:

Are there two women on stage?
Do they talk to each other?
If so, is it about something other than a man?

If the answer to these three questions is ‘yes’, it passes. Whilst this isn’t a foolproof indicator of feminist theatre, it goes some way towards advocating for well-rounded female characters on stage.

Bechdel Theatre’s recent initiative Bechdel Testing Life asks women to send in recorded conversations from their everyday lives that pass the test. These are then given to playwrights, who use the conversations as jumping-off points for short plays. The most recent four dramatically vary in subject matter and, unfortunately, quality but two particularly stand out.

Rabiah Hussain’s Binnacle snapshots two sisters on the houseboat they grew up in, after their mum’s funeral. They don’t get along, and haven’t since they were young. Strongly reminiscent of David Auburn’s Proof, the less conventional sister wants to keep the boat whilst the corporate one with her three-bedroom house wants to sell the horrible, damp thing.

Though the ending is rushed and the resolution doesn’t ring totally true, there is convincing chemistry and tension between Katherine Hurley and Libby Rodliffe. Adult sibling conflict on stage is a welcome reflection of real life familiar relationships, though in this case it feels particularly derivative.

In short play format, it’s difficult to believably shape a story arc and add a decent amount of characterisation, but Hussain mostly succeeds. Binnacle feels like it’s part of a longer story, as does the most successful work of the event, Alginate by Isley Lynn. The poignant story of a woman who commissioned an artist to make a sculpture of her breasts before a double mastectomy moves in its positivity and emotional restraint.

Lynn’s trademark is characters dealing with totally personal inner struggles. They shine in the short play format, and her story is effectively unresolved. Holly Augustine and Lucy Thackeray both show placid surfaces with tumultuous cores that drive the story forward. Their conviction, combined with Lynn’s quietly tragic storytelling, is thoroughly compelling.

The remaining short pieces have more significant shortcomings. One’s stylistic choices and regular flashbacks aren’t served by the time constraint and feels more like a devised A-level piece. The other has too much unnatural dialogue and doesn’t go anywhere – small talk is limited in it’s interest on stage.

Bechdel Testing Life is a good idea with clear intentions, though the format and quality control present significant challenges. Short plays are hard to do well and often feel undeveloped or unsatisfying. More curation of all of the works as they’re developed is needed in order to ensure they’re uniformly good. Women talk about things other than men, and they absolutely need to be heard, but only excellent work will serve to disprove and discredit the opposition.

Bechdel Testing Life runs through 22 July.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

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