photo by Manuel Harlan

Every now and then a play comes along which helps to define its time. Ella Hickson’s The Writer does just that. With an explosive script, stunning design, and phenomenal acting – led by Romola Garai in what may be her finest performance to date – the Almeida’s new production is compelling.

While the play takes on similar themes to the #metoo movement, reducing it to that slogan would be a disservice. The Writer is a vital piece of work, dissecting the intense struggle of a female playwright trying to express herself in an industry controlled by men.

It begins with a lively debate between a fiery 24-year-old aspiring playwright, played by Lara Rossi, and the director (Samuel West) of a play she is attending. Rossi’s character is just leaving the theatre when he asks for her feedback, not expecting the tirade that follows. With wit and power, she rips it apart for being shallow and created by ignorant men. What does she want from theatre? To “dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy” of course.

Made up of five short acts with different but overlapping characters, sexual politics underlie every part. In each scene, the men – played by West and Michael Gould – try to direct the women’s creativity, mansplaining what’s expected of them in a money-making industry. Romola Garai’s playwright wants to scream out real expression, but we see her being suffocated by the structured, constraining patriarchy. For the writer, her work is ‘holy’, but she is starved by the director of the emotional space to present it on stage.

Garai’s performance is truly mesmerising. We feel the depth of her frustration and exhaustion in negotiating with the system, particularly in her scene at home with West, when he plays her partner with a ‘normal’ job. No matter how hard she tries, he just doesn’t understand her, and her pain is deeply moving.

With a cunning script and deft direction by Blanche McIntyre, the most powerful messages are left unsaid. Full of electric silences and performed with impeccable timing, The Writer draws laughter from the audience at many points, and audible gasps of shock at others.

Each scene is another play within a play, with purposefully unsubtle set changes used to support this effect, leaving the audience in the dark as to what’s theatre and what’s not. As it progresses, the story becomes increasingly meta, spiralling into the writer’s tribal, sexual expressions – with beautiful lighting designs by Richard Howell.

While at first confusing, and perhaps off-putting to some, the play’s unpredictability is its strength. To make it predictable would betray the play’s message: rebellion against the structure which men demand.