Written by Ashley Davies

Arts

Subverting the gaze

Vicky Featherstone, director of the Oliver Award-winning Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, talks to Ashley Davies about portraying teenage girls’ sexuality without sexualising them.

A divine chorus: the cast of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. Photos: Manuel Harlan.

Last year saw a hugely successful opening run in Edinburgh and subsequent UK tour for Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a splendidly raucous play with music about a group of schoolgirls from Oban going to Edinburgh for a choir competition. It recently scooped an Olivier Award, and next month it’s transferring to London’s West End for a brief run.

It’s a play that manages to be emotionally engaging without being sentimental, and it skilfully expresses the spectrum of adolescent female sexuality without ever looking like it’s there for the male – or indeed female – gaze. It’s at once funny, filthy, heartbreaking and chaotic, and this is largely down to the intelligence of its awesome director Vicky Featherstone, formerly founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland and now artistic director of London’s Royal Court Theatre.

The play was adapted by Lee Hall, the creator of Billy Elliot, from the novel The Sopranos by Alan Warner, and it features songs by ELO with the odd splash of liturgical choristry. Featherstone told me about getting it all on stage and why the representation of women in storytelling is at a crucial moment.

Tell me about your approach to representing young women on stage. What are the challenges?

The story of Our Ladies… is about six 17-year-old schoolgirls at a Catholic school and they’re going for a choir competition to the capital, but really what they want to do is get drunk, lose their virginity and have a great night out.

“We never allowed it to sit in any moment of longing or pain for too long. We’re right back in there in terms of them getting drunk and being naughty.”

The challenge is how do you enable these young women, both the actors themselves and their characters, to be on stage, in control, in terms of the way that John Berger used to talk about the gaze on them and how can they be sexual without being sexualised. And how can we celebrate their desire to lose their virginity or to find out whether they like boys or girls or all those kind of things without it becoming prurient and without us becoming the voyeurs of that story.

Also they are on stage, telling their story and they’re not asking the audience to like them. We spend a lot of time, as women especially, trying to make people like us and trying to be likeable. Actually, those girls don’t need to be aware of that – they’re just doing something totally for themselves.

What was fun about making it?

Getting the rage and the war of female friendship, female sexual desire, life happening to them, on stage in a way which we can all connect with. It’s incredibly truthful and there’s a rawness to it, as well as it feeling like it is heightened for its entertaining qualities. Finding that was really exciting.

The other thing was that the six actors are amazing. Working with them was just a thrill, in terms of how inventive they are and how talented they are and how perfect they wanted to get it and the responsibility they have for it. The rest of the creative team – Lee Hall, Martin Lowe (musical supervisor), Chloe Lamford (stage designer) and Imogen Knight (musical director) – all worked really well together. We had such a laugh: really good times.

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What did you learn in the process?

I learned a lot about how you can own the way that people look at you when you’re on stage in terms of the direct connection with the audience. I also learned a lot about how far I needed to go with the actors in terms of them coming from a place of certainty as young women and not wanting to do the right thing. They had to go through something quite ugly and quite dangerous to find the pace and that felt very precious.

How do you pitch a production like this without it feeling too sentimental?

You have to be aware of it, and that you mustn’t let it slide into that lachrymose thing. That’s where the preparation comes in. There are always different eyes on it. There might be something which I thought was beautiful but somebody thought it was too sentimental, so we all have each other’s backs on that.

The other thing is about undercutting it so even though it’s great to go to a place where we feel that huge emotion, we don’t let it linger. We found that teenage girls can really fall into that massive emotional space but then something happens and we can use that as a sort of way of moving the story on. We never allowed it to sit in any moment of longing or pain for too long. We’re right back in there in terms of them getting drunk and being naughty.

Song plays a very important role in this production. Why?

Often people can zone in and out of text so I think music is incredibly humanising, a way of bringing together a congregation in the theatre. There are two kinds of music we mainly use – ELO and other songs, and choral, religious music. That liturgical, religious music is an incredible gift in terms of trying to raise up a sort of major emotion. The two things next to each other are great, so you manage to cover everything from raucous fun to some much more spiritual, heartfelt moments.


How do you feel about the way young women, or women in general, are being represented in theatre right now. Are you seeing anything changing?

A difficult conversation has started to happen about how women are represented on stage: what force of the narrative is about them, about their agency, and also not only how much they own the story, but about what are they wearing compared with what the men are wearing. People didn’t question this before, so it feels like we’ve started some conversations there’s no going back from.

We’re reaching some kind of tipping point, but there are still many productions and plays where there is still some inequality in the way women are portrayed. It’s sort of in our DNA, it’s been around for a long time, and I think it’ll take a long time for it to finally become something which should feel antiquated and unrecognised.

It’s much better than it was but there’s still a long way to go and we mustn’t give up in demanding genuine equality. The power can come from above and from the bottom up – it’s not just from one direction, and that’s really important.

There’s a generation of young women in amazing positions now in theatre, who are able to commission and choose the work we put on, who we work with, so some of those old-fashioned types are becoming a genuine thing of the past.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is on at Duke of York’s Theatre, London from 9 May till 2 September.

@vicfeatherstone
@msashleydavies

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Written by Ashley Davies

Ashley Davies is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor and the human behind animal satire website thelabreport.co.uk.