Vicky Featherstone (Photo: Royal Court Theatre)

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Vicky Featherstone on telling women’s stories  

Lynn Enright meets the first-ever woman to run the Royal Court to talk about putting older women on stage and ignoring the kings of British theatre 

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By Lynn Enright on

They are drunk and libidinous and vulnerable and scary. Badly behaved. Deeply lovable. Typical teenage girls. And they are on stage at the venerable National Theatre.

In Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, six young women – the actors playing the teenage characters are mainly recent drama graduates, rather than bona fide teenagers – tell their story, a story that involves unfulfilling sex and unrequited love and bottles and bottles of Hooch, that alcopop so popular with 90s teens. A story that veers from deeply moving to utterly silly and back again with each new line; a typical line being: “My sister is also my aunty”…

It’s a story that the director, Vicky Featherstone, tells me taught her more about making feminist theatre than any other show she’s ever worked on. The artistic director of the Royal Court (Our Ladies Of Perpetual is a separate project for the National Theatre of Scotland) is sitting in her lovely, light-filled office that overlooks Sloane Square. She talks in great gushing paragraphs, firing out her wisdom and her observations, warmly, generously and very, very quickly.  

“Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour is about six girls getting drunk, trying to escape from their teacher, going to a school choir competition, trying to lose their virginity, have sex and get back in time for a dance with the sailors in the bad club. At the forefront, that isn't a feminist agenda in any way, yet it's very truthful and it is what 17-year-old girls are,” she says.

The challenge for Featherstone then was to put those teenage girls – desperate for sex, hungry for love – on stage in an all-female cast without objectifying them: “When they're standing there in the clothes that they want to get shagged in, how are they in control of showing the audience that, while not trying the make the audience feel sexual?”

The characters – raucous but hugely talented Scottish choirgirls – engage in the type of behaviour more regularly seen on shows like Ibiza Uncovered than on the hallowed boards of the National. “When you watch all those Ayia Napa programmes, we really demonise those young women. They're showing their knickers in the street, they're throwing up, their breasts are hanging out. They're shown to us so we're supposed to be revolted by them and shocked by them,” Featherstone says. So when it came to staging Our Ladies, “it was really important to me that we were able to portray the truth of what those girls do and how horrific they are and how naughty they are and how dirty it is and dark, without demonising it".

Throughout her career – as a freelance director, as the artistic director of touring company Paines Plough, as the inaugural artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland and as the first-ever woman to take the helm at the prestigious Royal Court theatre – Featherstone has been interested in telling the stories of people who have traditionally not appeared on British stages. “I've never really connected with that sort of Great British canon of playwriting,” she says. “As soon as I understood, and had access to, the concept that there were living writers, not just dead writers, who had created work which really, tangibly was about the world that they lived in and the questions of that moment, that was the thing that always, always excited me most.” 

When they're standing there in the clothes that they want to get shagged in, how are they in control of showing the audience that, while not trying the make the audience feel sexual?

And those new narratives are, of course, much more likely to include women, minorities, people of colour and people from poorer backgrounds, instead of the fighting kings of Shakespeare.

“Traditionally, the theatre in this country – the theatre that has been seen as great theatre or great playwriting – is about tragic heroes. Often the heroes are the kings, the politicians, the people who are at the forefront of our society. I think there's been a vicious circle, a perpetuating circle of 'we only write plays about the people who are important in society' and if the people who are important in society are only the men, then it just goes on and on.”

Predictably, given their prominence, it was those great epics that originally piqued her interest in drama; her father – an engineer with BP, responsible for her peripatetic childhood (she was born in Surrey, but there were stints in Germany and Scotland) – brought her to see Shakespeare at the National, “Othello and Titus Andronicus”, Featherstone remembers, but once she began studying English and drama at Manchester in the mid-1980s, she realised that theatre could be more than that.

“It was an extraordinary time to be there,” she remembers. “Manchester was completely changing, the music scene was changing – it was a really political university, with a powerful feminist movement.” She started out thinking that she wanted to be an actor, but soon decided she was better at directing.

Now, as the artistic director of the Royal Court, an institution at the very forefront of new writing in the UK, Featherstone is in a position to programme and direct plays that reflect the experiences of, and therefore speak to, a diverse UK audience.

Bringing the work to people who might not ever find themselves in chichi Sloane Square is a good place to start, she says, so touring the productions and working with communities is key.

“We've been doing a major three-year project in Tottenham called Beyond the Court. We do a massive project in Pimlico, too, interestingly, because of course Pimlico neighbours one of the richest boroughs – Kensington and Chelsea – in the world, but there are two massive estates there and there are issues between these two estates: fighting, knife crime. A couple of our younger members of staff are from those estates and they're always like, ‘We never had any relationship with the Royal Court and we'd walk past the theatre and didn't know what it was.’ We started to do a lot of really exciting work with the people in Pimlico who wouldn't necessarily think that they should come to the Court. It's very much about going out and thinking long-term and starting those long-term conversations.”

Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Meanwhile, the long-term effects of women having become integral to the arts are starting to be felt, Featherstone says. She cites Caryl Churchill and her recent Royal Court-produced play, Escaped Alone, which had an all-female cast playing characters specified as being “at least 70”.     

“When the right people have power, that's when change can happen. If you look at somebody like Caryl Churchill, who, as a playwright, now has incredible power in a very positive way because she's so extraordinary – she is now writing about things that concern her, which is older age, the end of the world, the responsibility to your grandchildren, female solidarity, having cups of tea with each other.” 

So, having women in these positions of “power” is not arbitrary – it’s not like, Featherstone says, “a tick against something”. It is actually “the tipping point” – “Caryl Churchill is now writing a play for women the same age as her.”

Featherstone’s philosophy for the artistic vision of the Royal Court crosses over to the workplace practices she espouses. She tells me it is important to never assume that a young person applying for a job or a workshop at the Royal Court already knows what it is, to never take for granted that they have that privilege. That way, “every conversation is beginning with new potential”, she says. Walking through the building with her, she stops to chat with junior members of staff, her warm approach extending to everyone.  

Caryl Churchill is now writing about things that concern her: older age, the end of the world, the responsibility to your grandchildren, female solidarity, having cups of tea 

Ensuring that she runs an organisation that is supportive of working mothers is an imperative for her, too. Featherstone, who is 49 and has two teenagers, a boy and girl, says: “Coming here [to the Royal Court], I've really instilled that we are one thing: our family lives are our work lives. A massive burden is released if you work somewhere where you feel that you're allowed to be a mother, with the problems of your children and childcare in the workplace – you don't have to keep it aside. That's really important for me – that I work somewhere where we create the values and the culture where those two things can co-exist.”

She is keen though, when on the subject of working mothers, to make clear that things are tough, tougher probably, for women in other professions. “It's important, when we have these conversations about how difficult it is for women in the arts, that we actually remember that it's incredibly difficult for loads and loads of women in different jobs,” she says. “My mum was a nurse. It was really, really hard for her to be a nurse and have children because of the hours she had to do and because there's no tolerance if you're a nurse. At least I can bring my children into work!”

She sometimes does bring her kids to work – they loved Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, she tells me – but her husband, a screenwriter, has often been the parent doing the bulk of the childcare in their home, a situation that has led to “so many amazing bonuses”.

“The relationship my husband has with my teenage daughter is incredible. I didn't really speak to my dad when I was 14,” she says before telling me how her daughter first told her husband that she had started her period. “I was rehearsing and he was there when she started her periods and, as I said to her when I got home that night, the joke is that my dad doesn't even know that I've started mine.” She lets out a hoot before turning a little more serious as she reflects on the bigger picture: “That is a massive, massive change in our society – a really positive shift for that generation of young women … She's growing up as a 14-year-old girl with this unbelievable confidence around her dad; she's totally herself with him because he's always been there.”

I wonder if she worries about raising a teenage girl, if she finds it hard in this era of social media and exam pressure, but she answers brightly, “I love having teenagers – I think they're incredible.”

Perhaps that’s why the bawdiness and the chaos of Our Ladies gives way to a powerful poignancy. Because Vicky Featherstone loves teenagers, loves people, loves stories  – and loves making us love them too. 

Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour is at the National Theatre until October 1

@lynnenright

Vicky Featherstone (Photo: Royal Court Theatre)
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