What was the starting point for Hysteria?
Andrew Eaton-Lewis, arts lead for the Mental Health Foundation, met with me just after the last US election and asked me if I’d write something in response to the results that could tie in with women’s mental health. We spoke about the impact of an admitted sexual assailant being sworn into office on the mental health of women who’ve experienced or feared the experience of sexual assault. We spoke about sexist policies here in the UK like the rape clause, or family cap, and we spoke about the long history that we have in countries like ours of labelling women who are a problem, for whatever reason, “mad” and incarcerating them to get rid of them. This last topic kept us talking a lot – we spoke about the novel The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox, Valerie Haigh-Wood Eliot (who married TS Eliot), A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, and the genesis of the term hysteria.
When Andrew suggested we pitch the show to the A Play a Pie and a Pint programme, I immediately began to think about the satirical political cabarets of Wildcat and the late David Maclennan. I was lucky enough to work with David making contemporary political cabarets for his audience at A Play a Pie and a Pint and so I immediately felt excited at the prospect of exploring the impact of current sexist policy on women’s mental health through the political cabaret form that I had learned from the founding artistic director of the host venue and bringing a rigorous feminist framework to it.
The show grew out of research by you and Dr Iris Elliott from the Mental Health Foundation – can you tell us a bit about that?
We were keen for the show to accurately reflect the experiences that people have in the world today and so Iris and I teamed up to begin a research process that opens up safe women only spaces where people can share their stories and reflections on the experience of being a woman in the world today. These spaces have been both full of lots of voices and laughter and intimate one to one conversations where personal testimony has been heard.
Can you tell us a bit about how the stories you gathered fed into the show?
I pieced through the wide variety of things talked about in the research process to find a through line in the show that charts how western culture, media and policy can erode a woman’s mental health. The cabaret draws heavily on satire and has a surreal, queer feel as is true to the cabaret aesthetic like Bob Fosse’s choreography in the film Cabaret. It flips gender expectation, is unapologetically risqué and refuses to be shut up. There is a section in the show that is titled “testimony”. This is not verbatim as such. I have taken stories that were shared in our research process, cut and pasted experiences and images and turns of phrases and created a testimony section that directly reflects the experience of women without being anyone’s own personal story.
What shocked/surprised/moved you the most?
I find the power of words endlessly fascinating. Even in a room where sex and assault can be talked about openly, people are afraid to use the word rape – even when that, or the perpetual fear of it, is what is being discussed. I initially wanted to call the show The Rape Clause Cabaret but, again, the R word was too contentious.
While the subject matter is very serious, Hysteria is also a very funny show – what has made you laugh the most during this process?
Before I started writing I worried that the state of western politics had gone beyond satire. But I’m relieved to say I don’t think we have – yet. Satire is dark anyway and I’ve relished the chance to really rip the piss out of the misogyny at the heart of our social structure. And we have three very funny performers – George Drennan, Annie Grace and Maryam Hamidi – bringing the show to life, who are all accessing the darkest and most ridiculous depths to which we are falling as a civilisation.
You and Iris are also appearing together at the Women of the World festival in Perth at the end of October – what can we expect from that?
The WOW workshop will be a fantastic opportunity to keep the project going and connect with an ever widening group of people. As the play and project evolves it will necessarily respond to what’s going on on the ground and this workshop will be a fantastic way to kick that off – to take whatever we’ve found from the two week run of the show and bring the question at the heart of it – what is the impact of sexist policy on our mental health? – back into face to face discussion.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I’m coming to the end of a long tour playing Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and after that I am taking a break from poetically represented misogyny and violence and going on holiday with my family!