Page last updated at 08:35 GMT, Monday, 14 December 2009

Female playwrights taking centre stage in London

A scene from Lucy Prebble's hit play Enron
Lucy Prebble's hit play Enron transfers to London's West End in early 2010

The most talked-about play of the year is by a woman. Lucy Prebble is one of a new group of young women playwrights now breaking through a glass ceiling at the theatre.

Nigel Wrench of BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme examines whether they will break male domination of the playwright's art.

Dominic Cooke, artistic director of the Royal Court theatre, remembers vividly the first time he read an early draft of Enron by Lucy Prebble.

"I was really struck by its ambition," he says. "It's a Shakespearean play with a massive reach, very theatrical. It's a really fascinating study of greed and power - corporate power and how it works, corporate excess."

The drama is about the scandal in the American energy company of that name, its rise and fall in what seemed like a time of endless boom.

In the middle of a recession, it became one of the year's hottest tickets; a sell-out hit at the Royal Court, renowned for its new writing, and now headed for the West End of London and Broadway in New York.

Writers' inspiration

Ms Prebble is one of a large group of young women playwrights whose work has come across his desk in the past two years.

"There seems to be a real growth in confidence," adds Mr Cooke.

Alia Bano outside the Royal Court
Alia Bano was named most promising playwright by a leading newspaper

Among the other names to watch: Bola Agbaje, Polly Stenham, Ella Hickson, Alia Bano and Molly Davies.

The work of Caryl Churchill, in her 70s now, and Sarah Kane, whose play Blasted drew acclaim in the 1990s and who later committed suicide, is now taught at universities.

That, suggests Mr Cooke, might provide the inspiration for these new writers.

This is certainly the case for Alia Bano - who won this year's Evening Standard award for most promising playwright for her play Shades at the Royal Court.

"Caryl Churchill is great and an icon," she says.

"But I don't think women have been given as much notice as men. It's more natural for male playwrights to have plays staged.

"I'm an English teacher and quite a lot of the plays I naturally teach on the curriculum are by men because they are revered more.

"When a world is dominated by something it feels harder to break through if you're not the norm.

"As a working class Asian girl growing up in Britain I always wanted to write. But did I ever think I'd have a play on? No.

Ann Jellicoe at the Royal Court
Ann Jellicoe at the Royal Court in 1965

"I thought it was slightly beyond me; this beautiful world I didn't have access to. Actually I found that was totally untrue. If you give it a go and work as hard as the next person, you can get in."

But others remain cynical. "I do believe there is a new generation but then there is continually a new generation," says Susan Croft, author of She Also Wrote Plays a guide to women playwrights.

Male domination?

Research by the Sphinx Theatre Company, which campaigns on behalf on women in theatre, says four out of five plays staged professionally in Britain are by men.

And Ms Croft believes the work of women playwrights of an earlier era is simply forgotten in the search for the new. Ann Jellicoe, 82 now, was part of a new generation in the 1960s. Her play The Knack was made into a film and performed around the world.

Playwright Bola Agbaje
Bola Agbaje plans to write more parts for women in her plays

At home in Dorset, Ms Jellicoe is forthright in her advice on women and playwriting: "If you want to do it, just do it!"

"If a play is a good play there is nothing you can do about it. Whether it's by a man or a woman, it's still a good play."

But she adds, referring to theatre managers, "Having said that, they'd think, 'it's by a woman, it can't be that good.'"

Actor and director Janet Suzman longs for the latest new generation to write more strong parts for women.

"The central figure in Enron is still that man," she says, meaning Enron boss Jeffrey Skilling, played by Samuel West on stage.

Indeed, Bola Agbaje, who won an Olivier Award for Gone Too Far and whose new play Off The Endz is staged early in 2010, plans more and better parts for women in the future.

Her attitude is that now there are no boundaries.

"I've never ever considered the fact that I'm a woman playwright so therefore there's going to be limitations on me and I may not achieve the things that playwrights achieve. I've never put limitations on myself."

Nigel Wrench's full report into the rise of women playwrights was broadcast on Radio 4's Broadcasting House on Sunday 13 December. Listen again on the programme's website.

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