Failing to perform

I love the theatre, all of it: the gradual hush of a nattering audience as the lights dim, the surreptitious rustle of sweet wrappers, the actors who are just one role away from being known outside of the obsessive community of theatre fans (I’m calling it now: John Heffernan!). It can all be a little daunting for the uninitiated, but even newbies to this land of theatrical delights will be welcomed in with open arms and fervent advice about day seating, as if they were being informed of the location of the Holy Grail.

However, things don’t appear to be quite so egalitarian up on stage. The Guardian recently reported a study on the representation of women on stage, which found a 2:1 divide between male and female roles. Over on twitter, @proresting has been documenting the more outrageous casting calls she’s come across while looking for work, from sexy nuns to a request for a “pretty girl” who can do “what women do best – looking after her boys”. It reads as an encyclopaedia of sleaze.

A few months back, Swedish cinemas hit the headlines when they announced new releases would be rated on the now famous Bechdel Test. It’s a test of gender bias (or the lack of it), with only three little rules that need to be fulfilled in order to pass:

1) There needs to be more than one female character, who is named;

2) They talk to one another;

3) About something other than a man.

Unsurprisingly, blockbuster films have been doing a spectacular job of failing it.

In the 50 productions I subjected to the Bechdel Test, only 17 managed to pass

Recently, I’ve been wondering whether the same thing can be done for theatre. It shouldn’t be too hard. After all, theatre is more than big explosions and scary car chases. There are bound to be female characters having all sorts of interesting conversations, possibly even with each other.

So I started monitoring the productions I saw. Success came fairly quickly, when I caught Viva Forever, the short-lived Spice Girls musical, just before it closed. They may have been talking about their weight and how they really really really wanna be famous, but by god they were women and this was their story. This’ll be easy, I managed to convince myself. London theatre was going to pass with flying colours.

Sadly, it wasn’t to last. In the 50 productions I subjected to the Bechdel Test, only 17 managed to pass. They ranged from the anonymously penned Elizabethan drama, Thomas of Woodstock (a rehearsed reading at the Barbican) to brand spanking new plays at the Royal Court. I luxuriated in swanky West End palaces, and squished myself into tiny fringe venues, but it made no difference. Everywhere I went, theatre was failing to perform on the Bechdel.

Where was it all going so wrong? At first I thought it was all those revivals we are given, written by men born before the dawn of female suffrage. Turns out, it wasn’t them at all. Shakespeare managed to sneak two passes onto the list, in the form of Much Ado About Nothing (at the Old Vic) and Henry V (part of the Michael Grandage season at the Noël Coward Theatre). Tennessee Williams got in on the act with Sweet Bird of Youth (Old Vic). Ibsen managed an impressive three passes, with Ghosts (originally at the Almeida, and now enjoying a West End transfer), A Doll’s House (at the Young Vic before transferring to the Duke of York’s) and Public Enemy (Young Vic). So where are all these fails coming from?

Of the 20 new written pieces I saw, 13 managed to fail. That’s 65% of the contemporary work on my list, which couldn’t manage to get two female characters together to talk about something other than men.

When cherry-picking the greatest scenes from 50 years’ worth of material, Bechdel-friendly exchanges did not feature in any of them

Well, perhaps the female playwrights are having a better bash at it, I thought. Of the 50 productions, three were penned exclusively by women… oh. That’s embarrassing. Not only are women’s stories not being told, but women aren’t doing much of the telling either.

In November 2013, the National Theatre celebrated their 50th anniversary with a televised gala performance featuring scenes from all their big hits, from The History Boys to My Fair Lady. Even after charting Bechdel results for months by that point, I was surprised to see that out of the 36 scenes featured, both live and played from archive footage, not one passed the Bechdel Test. The National Theatre, great bastion of art and culture, the shining star of the South Bank, could not rustle up a scene where two women are allowed to communicate about something other than men. Well, I’m sure they could, they just chose not to.

When cherry-picking the greatest scenes from 50 years’ worth of material, Bechdel-friendly exchanges did not feature in any of them. In 50 years, there is no definitive scene, which takes place between two or more women, where the conversation is about something, anything, other than a man. I find that incredibly depressing.

At this point we have to ask ourselves whether it matters. Passing the Bechdel doesn’t make a play good, nor does it even ensure it is particularly feminist. Frankly, plenty of plays passed for dubious reasons; one only did so because a female character asks another if they could use the loo (Barking in Essex) and another because the lady of the house orders the serving girl to fetch champagne (Ghosts). One of the best new plays of the year, hailed by critics and audiences alike, Chimerica, was a total fail on the Bechdel, but included plenty of those strong female characters we all crave. They just didn’t talk to each other much.

It seems audiences actually like the idea of women doing things and talking about stuff

With so much attention is being given to the problem, can we expect a change anytime soon? Production companies are hardly going to cancel their run of A Midsummer Night’s Dream just because it doesn’t feature a Bechdel-friendly conversation. But maybe writers will start considering the matter as they sit down to pen their masterpieces. If not for feminism, then perhaps for a financial incentive.

Versha Sharma and Hanna Sender over at analysed the top 50 grossing movies in the US in 2013 and found that those that managed to pass the Bechdel actually made more money. It seems audiences actually like the idea of women doing things and talking about stuff.

When Ticketmaster released their State of Play report last year, it was no surprise to anyone that there is a “heavy female skew” in audiences, especially with younger audiences. So it seems strange that male stories are getting more stage-time. Would featuring more female stories actually have potential to increase audience figures? I have no idea, but I’d love to find out.

The photo, taken by Richard H Smith, is of a scene in the production of The Amen Corner, one of the productions Max saw that passed the Bechdel Test. In the photo, a woman wearing a white church robe holds her finger to her lips with one hand, while the other is over the face of a man to her left wearing a blue robe. To read The F-Word’s review of The Amen Corner, click here.

If you are interested in writing a feature for the theatre section, please contact us.

Productions that passed the Bechdel Test:

American Lulu by Olga Neuwirth (Young Vic)

Viva Forever by Jennifer Saunders (Piccadilly Theatre)

The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh (Noel Coward Theatre)

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (Old Vic)

Henry V by William Shakespeare (Noel Coward Theatre)

Public Enemy by Henrik Ibsen (Young Vic)

A Doll’s House by Henrick Ibsen (Duke of York’s Theatre)

Before the Party by Rodney Ackland (Almeida)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by David Greig (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

The Same Deep Water As Me by Nick Payne (Donmar Warehouse)

American Psycho by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Duncan Sheik (Almeida)

Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams (Old Vic)

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (Almeida)

West Side Story by Stephen Sondheim (Sadler’s Wells)

The Amen Corner by James Baldwin (National Theatre)

Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorky (National Theatre)

Barking in Essex by Clive Exton (Wyndham’s Theatre)

Productions the failed the Bechdel Test:

Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Inside Wagner’s Head by Simon Callow (Linbury Studio Theatre)

Bullet Catch by Rob Drummond (The Shed)

The Scottsboro Boys by Fred Ebb (Young Vic)

The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas by Dennis Kelly

My Perfect Mind by Kathryn Hunter, Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge (Young Vic

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Simon Stephens (Apollo Theatre)

Hysteria by Terry Johnson (Hampstead Theatre)

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (National Theatre)

The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell (Trafalgar Studios)

Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill (National Theatre)

Mojo by Jez Butterworth (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Thomas of Woodstock, author unknown (Barbican)

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare (Donmar Warehouse)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (Shakespeare’s Globe)

The Hothouse by Harold Pinter (Trafalgar Studios)

The Tempest by William Shakesepeare (Shakespeare’s Globe)

The Fastest Clock in the Universe by Philip Ridley (King’s Head Theatre)

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle (Palace Theatre)

The Night Alive by Conor McPherson (Donmar Warehouse)

The Hush by Matthew Herbert with Ben Power (The Shed)

Dark Vanilla Jungle by Philip Ridley (Soho Theatre)

Peter Pan: The Never Ending Story by John Hoelen and Peggy Verhoeven (Wembley Arena)

Let the Right One In by Jack Thorne (Royal Court)

The Wind in the Willows by Will Tuckett and Andrew Motion (Duchess Theatre)

Macbeth by William Shakespeare (Trafalgar Studio)

Richard II by William Shakespeare (Barbican)

Seawallby Simon Stephens (The Shed)

Fortune’s Fool by Ivan Turgenev (Old Vic)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (Noel Coward Theatre)

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare (Shakespeare’s Globe)

The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht (Duchess Theatre)

National Theatre 50th Anniversary, various writers (National Theatre)

Max Smiles is a theatre employee and lover; she blogs about it over at

Related Posts