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Theatre Critic Book

Lucy Kerbel "100 Great Plays for Women" , Nick Hern Books , December 15, 2013
Theatre Critic Book by Lucy Kerbel “100 Great Plays for Women” is a labour of love, three years in its making reveals Lucy Kerbel in her acknowledgements. Any list, she also says, is likely to be argued-over. Her book marries depth and application with a stamp of individuality.

The title is not strictly accurate. After her selection of a hundred, roaming over centuries and continents, she adds a bonus of ten plays written for solo performance. This essay format lives or dies by sharpness of description, and Lucy Kerbel delivers it. “Three Tall Women” has the “mixture of quirkiness, quiet brutality and steely wit” to be expected from Edward Albee. “August: Osage County” is a “blend of family discord, crumbling veneers, abandoned dreams and gasp-inducing revelations.” “Whale Music”, Anthony Minghella’s 1980 fledgling piece, is “a richly complicated and determinedly non-sentimental analysis of some of the most complex and emotionally contentious of all aspects of human existence.”

A book with a format like “100 Great Plays for Women” might easily have a feel of search-engine-trawl-and-compile to it, interesting enough but rarely surprising. It is not. Lucy Kerbel takes her reader on a vaulting journey through a selection based on personal judgment rather than a checklist tick-off. Pam Gems, Charlotte Keatley, Sharman McDonald, Wendy Kesselman or Beth Henley could have featured but do not. Shelagh Stephenson is represented by “Five Kinds of Silence” instead of the better known “Memory of Water” and Rona Munro by “Iron” rather than “Bold Girls.” Kerbel reveals many a surprise, “the Beau Defeated” by Mary Pix premiered in 1700, “Just to Get Married” by Cicely Mary Hamilton premiered 1910 and “Nine to Six” by Aimee and Philip Stuart premiered 1930.

If the choice is generous in reaching back into theatre’s history it is equally as eclectic and far-reaching in geographical spread. The USA is an obvious destination. Alan Ball is known for “American Beauty” and “Six Feet Under” but is also author of “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress” with a cast of five women to one man. French-speaking Canada is represented by Michel Tremblay and Cuba by Maria Irene Fornes. Australia features with Ray Lawler with his 1955 “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and New Zealand with “the Woman in the Window” by Alma de Groen. Continental Europe supplies Fermin Cabal (Spain), Victoria Benedictsson (Sweden), Odon von Horvath (Austro-Hungary historically) and Marta Tikkanen (Finland).

A roving guide like this is bound to alight on many an interesting episode in theatre’s history. We see Tennessee Williams walking out of a first private screening of “Suddenly Last Summer.” He objects to the ending- incidentally a compelling piece of cinema- for its favouring of literal depiction over allegorical treatment. That extraordinary figure, Clare Booth Luce, author of “the Women” with its forty-four women characters, moves on to become US ambassador in Italy. Early retirement is enforced due to arsenic poisoning from chips of paint falling from a ceiling. Ena Lamont Stewart, author of “Men Should Weep,” sees a theatre performance in the early 1940’s and in her own words “came home in a mood of red-hot revolt against cocktail time, glamour gowns….I asked myself what I wanted to see on stage and the answer was life. Real life.”

“100 Great Plays for Women” in its cumulative reading feels like an alternative and complementary writing of theatre’s history. There is material here a-plenty for any prospective Edinburgh company in search of a production choice to stand out. For a performer seeking a one-woman show or an audition piece that is different “100 Great Plays for Women” is a cornucopia of riches. Lucy Kerbel, and by extension editor and publisher, have done theatre writing great service with this book of significance.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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