WHERE? Dorfman Theatre, National
RUN TIME: 75 minutes (without interval)
Author Bryna Turner explains the conflict at the heart of her play is between a revolutionary, the old guard and someone seeking to make progress, and its star Fiona Shaw adds 1 word – ‘Brexit’.
- Read on for reasons including how this play forms part of the Courage Everywhere season at the National
Bull In A China Shop isn’t about Brexit but the forbidden real-life relationship between women’s suffrage supporters Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks, spanning 40 years from the late 19th to mid 20th Century in Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Woolley worked with Presidents including Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt on issues including pacifism and women’s rights. The play examines how her initial revolutionary views are tempered by compromise and how this alienates her younger lover.
This rehearsed reading is part of the Courage Everywhere season at the National Theatre which marks the centenary of some women being allowed to vote and features talks, screenings and readings.
It was written in 2016 and in the Q&A Turner reflects on how the US election result loomed large. ‘It’s a look at past events with a contemporary gaze. I tried to use a historical voice but initially it consisted of a lot of people not saying things, which is quite boring for a play.
‘It ends with a man getting a job and during the 2016 election this seemed all too real.’
Shaw, so memorable in BBC America’s Killing Eve, plays Woolley and, despite the rehearsal constraints, brings to life the exasperation of opting for small victories ahead of one big war.
Shaw explains: ‘Plays can be about themes but are really about people. What’s wonderful here is that we explore the contradictions that lie in people. Woolley seems to discover that revolutions don’t happen overnight.’
Teacher Marks is played by Jade Anouka who frustrates Woolley by finding it easier to be more radical and also being unfaithful with a student (Leah Harvey, very funny as she idolises and also threatens the Woolley/Marks relationship).
Elsewhere, Sally Rogers makes a convincing Dean Welsh, constantly informing Woolley how trustees are withdrawing funding from the college because of its over-feminisation seen as a threat to family values, and Clare Dunne’s Felicity challenges Shaw’s character to do more.
Director Phyllida Lloyd (films Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady as well as the all-women Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar) believes ‘sometimes you have to go small to make big things happen.
‘A small group of people performing live in a room might lead to bigger change than a TV programme watched by millions.’
Author Turner worries that stories like Woolley’s might be written in the sand but continually washed away with people learning nothing from them and doomed to repeat the cycle without change.
Bull In A China Shop is a fascinating story and this brilliant cast makes us wish that it receives a fuller production and a much broader audience.