To be woman is to be assessed. Everywhere you turn, people expect things of you; things that, sometimes, you are unable to deliver. A long term partner, a steady job, a decent flat, kids (someday) – a neatly wrapped, clean package. As you get older, it only gets harder. Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge spoke recently about how difficult the post-30 years are:
I think you have a license to be a bit all over the place in your twenties… I think there is a different pressure in your thirties. You are supposed to have got over that, politely and cleanly, and then suddenly – magically! – have created this new, secure life for yourself.
Stephanie Martin, the writer behind Bridle, shares the same concerns. This one-woman show examines what it means to be female, and how hard – impossible – it is to live up to society’s expectations.
Like Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, the protagonist of Bridle is a witty, bright, sexually liberated woman, in her late twenties or early thirties. She is attractive (but ‘not beautiful’, she points out to us), has a boyfriend (it seems) and a steady group of friends, who have all settled down whilst she has not, quite. As the play begins, this nameless woman returns from a night out to another nameless figure of authority, waiting outside her door. He tells her that she is being charged and imprisoned with an unspecified act of sexual indecency, which is ‘forbidden in a time of austerity’. It becomes evident that, in this imagined (yet largely identical) world, female sexual behaviour is being policed and punished by the state, when deemed inappropriate. She is taken to a cell somewhere, where she tells us, via direct address to the audience, about her life and situation. Gradually, the humour disintegrates, and the narrative becomes progressively darker, messier and harder to control.
What makes the script so great is its directness. Martin does not shy away from saying the awkward (of the penis: ‘it’s a little bit scary, isn’t it?’) or unsayable (you’ll have to wait and see). She voices what we all think, but rarely voice to others, even to our closest friends. Such honesty is refreshing – we bond with her as she confides in us. Despite the bravado that Martin exudes on stage, the play feels intimate and confessional – even when we sense that she might not be telling the whole truth. We are with Martin every step of the way, as the play morphs from a comedy into something less light and more nuanced.
However, at times the script felt moderately directionless. Whilst this may have been intentional, Martin left us a little too much in the dark – where was she imprisoned? Why, specifically? What is the political context? Considering the times we are living in, the political element could have been fleshed out a little more. Various staging directions (such as the constant interruption of a Christina Aguilera song) felt ineffectual and jarring. Sometimes, these gaps were exciting, tantalising. Her father, for instance, probably has more significance then Martin admits; various lovers remain faceless, and are all the more frightening for it. The play takes place through a camera lens, intensely focused on Martin, with the rest of the world blurred out. This effect was hit and miss – there were moments when the insularity was powerful. Often, though, it meant that depth was exchanged for vagueness, and it became harder to situate oneself in the narrative.
For all its flaws, Bridle is a powerful piece of feminist theatre. It feels unfinished, but thoughtfully explores the complexity of womanhood in the modern age. Like the best plays, it makes you look inward, with occasionally unsettling results.