Two plays, very different, yet the congruent themes and revelations scream louder than the differences. Natasha Marshall’s Half Breed is a confrontational exposure of ingrained daily racism and the struggle to cement yourself in society when society doesn’t want you.
Ella Hickson’s The Writer intricately looks inwardly at the gender power play that exists within theatre production and sees a female playwright struggle to be heard and also force her way into a society that would prefer her to stay silent, or at least less angry.
Both plays focus on the difficulty of existing in a world that is systematically against you and both have very important things to say not only about racism and patriarchy but also about the very essence of human nature.
Half Breed is Natasha Marshall’s semi-autobiographical one-woman show following character Jaz as she deals with growing up in a rural West Country village as ‘the only black in the village and I know I’m not ‘proper black’ but trust me around here I’m about as black as it goes, and everyone knows.’
Marshall expertly plays all the characters against a plain stage, with a simple change in accent or flick of her body position to imply a switch in character. Marshall commands every scene, somehow managing to create scenery and crowds using her performance alone.
Jaz is struggling with her identity in a less than forgiving society ‘That mixed up, the kid mixed up, myself mix up up, mix up me, trying to be white in a half-black body’ and Marshall offers a touching, horrifying, enlightening insight in to the overwhelming and damaging impact of ingrained, inescapable racism.
Not for a second in the whole hour of Marshall’s simply staged, one woman performance does the audience’s attention leave her. She is electric on stage, making you laugh, cry and hopeful.
With startling versatility, Marshall flicks between laughter and panic, her inner struggle evident and painful to watch. A palpable moment in the play shows Jaz in a pub, where Mitchell, the boyfriend of Brogan, is telling the exhilarating story about his recent experience buying a curry.
He is being ‘served by that Paki fella’ when all of a sudden he discovers a hair in his food ‘this big, long, greasy, black hair, that fucking Paki’s hair.’ Mitchell finishes his story, ‘And the whole room is laughing. So I start laughing…And I hate that I’m laughing, and it follows me home. That laughter follows me all the way home. It follows me home, that laughing.’
With heartbreaking honesty and transparency, Marshall explains the need to laugh along with something that is actually damaging you, to conform, to be silent, all the while legitimising your own dehumanisation.
The theme of dehumanisation is also heavily explored in The Writer. Ella Hickson wrote the play shortly before the Weinstein revelation stating that ‘it was very much something that I was thinking about and dealing with at the time.’ Hickson goes on to say ‘The play looks at the relationship between sex and power in various different set-ups.’ It focuses on but is much more than, a theatrical explanation of the #MeToo movement.
Romola Garai plays the writer, a female playwright trying to be heard and struggling with her identity in a male-dominated world and industry.
The play explores the toxic power men still have in society and how women can sometimes be left frustrated, silent and forgotten.
The character of the writer has written a play about her experiences as a female in the theatre industry, highlighting themes of patriarchy, identity, and control.
She is desperate to keep her integrity and tell her story her way, despite pressure from the male director and her boyfriend to sell out as ‘It’s a job. It’s how you make money. There’s rent to pay.’ To the writer, it is not just a job ‘Because the story I wrote, when I wrote it, was true. The thing I said was true. And if I turn it into a film this thing isn’t true and it will hurt.’
The first scene is actually a scene from the writer’s play, a play within a play and sets up the relationship between the director and the writer. In the scene, the audience realises that the director had previously offered the writer a job when she was 18, and then subsequently tried to sleep with her.
‘I wanted to get that job because I was talented, not because I was fuckable’ she says, to which the director replies ‘You can be both. You’d think someone might be grateful for having so many strings to their…’
The play comes to a head in a final conversation between the writer and the director where again, he is pressuring her to adapt her truth and to change herself to please others.
When he again urges her to make the play more commercial she replies ‘It might suit you to call it a profession but it was never meant to be – it was meant to be a dedication, a calling. Not for mortgages and paycheques and career progression’.
The dark nature of The Writer is permeated occasionally with comedic relief and punctuated with surreal scenes that explore gender, relationships, sexuality, and motherhood.
Surrealism is used in both productions as both Jaz and the writer try to assert themselves as worthy.
What both plays force you to see, make you realise with an earth-shattering, unavoidable clarity is the inevitable impact that sustained systemic prejudice has on the individual human being.
The power of theatre is to uniquely convey emotion and experience but rarely is this achieved so succinctly and poignantly as in these two plays.
Half Breed is on now at The Soho Theatre, tickets from £10
The Writer is on now at The Almeida Theatre, tickets from £10