h a r r i e t m a y

Tag: Feminism

Feeling and Power

the_hedda_gabler_company-2578x1450We are at the National Theatre and the cast is on the stage, taking their final bows. Hedda Gabler has melted back into Ruth Wilson, Olivier Award-winning actress, and as the applause eases just enough she projects a few words over the crowd.

“Today is a historic day…” As she begins I am holding my breath, because she is using her platform powerfully and I am grateful. “We couldn’t march. But we march on stage.” The applause erupts again.

“How do you feel, after seeing Hedda Gabler?” As we exit the theatre into the bracing cold I know Sam is wondering because we have both been in a funk all day, wallowing in our January miseries. I did not go to the Women’s March, and I am wracked with guilt. “I feel better after that,” Sam admits, but I shake my head. “I feel the same as before,” I say, “Nothing.”

Over the last few weeks I have oscillated between feeling deflated and crushingly disconsolate, so I have not been much fun to be around. There is nothing wrong. It has merely been a feeling, like existing in a pot of tar: suspended in blackness with little ability to move.

Unable to move and at the brink of my vast irrationality. I say I want what I don’t; I throw tantrums when the innermost parts of myself are not correctly interpreted, through ESP or some other way. “Did you see yourself in Hedda?” is another thing Sam asks me, after she has flung several bouquets of flowers violently across the stage and confessed that she did not ever like the apartment in which her husband, stretched now to his financial limits, has acquired for her. Yes, yes of course. But surely a part of all of us is Hedda? (In the introduction to his English translation, the critic William Archer writes that “the Hedda type is not so common as all that, else the world would quickly come to an end.” If it should, with a view to recent events, I know it won’t be the Hedda-types who will be to blame.)

As we walk towards the Golden Jubilee Bridge on our way to the Embankment tube station, we discuss where power lies in Hedda Gabler. On the surface, Hedda herself has very little– every move she has made freely has served only to trap her further in isolation; in her marriage, in her home, in her thoughts. What power Hedda does have lies in the way she makes the other characters, both men and women, take to her, candidly offering her information she can then use against them. It is not until she attempts this with Judge Brack that she realises she is not the only one with this ability.

And there is a power projected onto her as well: the power to bear children. The insinuation and Tesman’s hope that Hedda may be pregnant is made several times, but a child would imprison her finally and completely. When Lovborg, on the other hand, refers to his manuscript as a “child”, he refers to the product of his intellect, hard work and freedom. What Hedda wants so desperately is to be her own woman. And yet she never finds the courage to live as brazenly and as deeply as she acts.  

And what if I’m failing to live brazenly or deeply? Going to work is easy; the commute, switching on the machine, answering questions and even asking them. It’s what is expected. What no one expects us to do is to fight, if we can find a way to fight for the right things in the right way.

The Cheap Seats

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We are well-practiced groundlings, and as we sit cross-legged in the queue outside the yard entrance to Shakespeare’s Globe with our £5 tickets we begin work on the 5 litres of boxed wine we have brought between eight of us, shared out in plastic cups. We’re about to see Caroline Byrne’s adaption of The Taming of the Shrew, which none of us really have any reference for outside of 10 Things I Hate About You. We are (pop) cultured.

When we’re let in to the theatre we move swiftly to stake our claim at the front, and although we’ve been told off enough in the past to know not to rest our cups of wine on the stage, I twice catch myself about to do just that. I’m more likely to want to do what I want than what I’m supposed to; more Kate than Bianca.

When Bianca’s suitors are introduced to her, and to us, Lauren whispers, “They’re so old!” We can’t imagine being married off by our fathers. Neither can Kate: obstinate and unmanageable, she rebels by repelling. As Kate is married against her will to Petruchio, and literally tied into her wedding dress, we mourn for her, sadly sipping our wine.

But what actually happens to Kate and Petruchio is this: their relationship is forged from equality and companionship. Bianca and Lucentio, on the other hand, both wanting different things, get them, only to find they share no common ground once inside their marriage. Petruchio has sought out what he knows will make a worthy wife– Kate’s high spirit and boldness– and she returns an unmatched sexual love and fierce loyalty.

Marriage is more egalitarian than ever, but women still must compromise with the world in order to live on their own terms. Niki Nakayama, the subject of episode four of Chef’s Table, will work only in closed kitchens after a man once walked in to the restaurant where she was working, and seeing that she was a woman, left immediately.

When the play has ended, we head down to the stoney beach beside the Thames where we finish the wine, proving none of us would do well with the deprivation Petruchio uses to tame Kate. But we too are high spirited. “To the pub!” someone shouts.

Flaw Less

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We’re on the Jubilee line heading towards Wembley when two teenage girls step onto the train, both in bright red lipstick, leggings and Ivy Park tshirts. “Wow,” says Ayesha, “they’re really fans.” But even though they’re the only two sporting pieces from Beyoncé’s new activewear line, it’s clear to see who else is on their way to see the Queen herself (“Bad Bitch B”, a jumbo screen mid-stage would later flash up during the show, to the beat of a YouTube fan’s jubilant staccato); there are a few women in gold headdresses and LBDs, and a gaggle standing by the door in heels, their hair gently curled, each with a can of Archers and lemonade in hand.

Ayesha takes a quick glance at our feet. “I’m glad none of us wear heels,” she’s saying, and Hannah and I shrug. “I don’t even own heels,” Hannah replies nonchalantly, and while I do they have noticeably shrunk since my illicit clubbing days in the sixth form.

We don’t rely on articles of clothing to feel womanly, and then, it’s just not practical in London, all cobbled streets and gaps to mind. Our lives are non-stop fast-paced busy and if we can’t move we’re stifled. (Beyoncé will open the show with Formation: “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it.”) There’s too much to do and too few hours in the day already to opt-in to such an obvious handicap.

Once we’re outside the stadium we wonder whether Blue Ivy is backstage. “Why not?” I’m saying, “I’m sure there’s an army of nannies back there with her.” Having female role models gets more complicated as you get older. Men have always had an array of choices; it has never been assumed that fatherhood is an obstacle to professional success, or that men can’t be more than one thing at any given time. (Later, home videos of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s wedding, of their vacations, of their moments with Blue Ivy will be stretched three storeys high and punctuate the concert.) Sure there’s marketing and manufacturing, but still Beyoncé is all-encompassing.

Beyoncé isn’t like us, but she isn’t like anything else we’ve ever seen before, either.