This latest production of British writer Caryl Churchill's play about success, exploitation and women is easily the standout MTC production of the year, a luminous example of how to direct big ideas and big emotions on a big stage.
The play, which premiered at London's Royal Court in 1982, is a classic political study of the professional choices open to women in Thatcherite Britain, and the impact of market libertarianism and rampant careerism on the personal freedoms of the underprivileged. It's also a highly imaginative riff on the nature of success, and, most crucially, who gets to define what counts as a "top girl".
Director Jenny Kemp's production opens with a brief prelude that sees Marlene sitting at her desk in the Top Girls employment agency, daydreaming, basking in the satisfaction of having just been promoted to managing director of the company. It's a necessary evocation of the romance of escape that drives Marlene in her professional life, and the kind of attentive directorial addition that makes this an uncommonly powerful main-stage theatre experience, laying out the emotional ground for a character who spends most of the play trying to efface that sense of innocence in herself.
The production then moves into the play proper, which begins with the famous dream-banquet where Marlene plays host to a party of historical and fictional women, complex exempla of successful women in male worlds. Kemp's direction of this difficult scene is serenely lucid, boldly grouped frieze-like arrangements suggesting neoclassical forms, but with a constant though subtle movement, pointing to the hidden foment in Marlene's subconscious. To pluck only two examples from a universally vivid ensemble, Li-Leng Au as Lady Nijo, a concubine, poet and later Buddhist nun in thirteenth-century Japan, and Maria Theodorakis as Pope Joan, a medieval and probably apocryphal female Pope, are brilliant in their stylised narrations of ordeal and triumph.
Each of the women at the banquet has at one time or another has had to confront their biological role as a mother or potential-mother. So too has Marlene. In the second act, back in the office, the week after her promotion, we see Marlene's child, given up at birth, return to her as a disaffected sixteen-year-old. It's like the miraculous second chance at motherhood that was granted to Patient Griselda, one of Marlene's banquet guests, but Marlene is not so overjoyed.
The final act then takes us back one year to a difficult encounter between Marlene and her sister, one that lays bare the conflict between loyalty to class and community, and the ambition for success in itself, regardless of the context or the personal and social cost.
Though Marlene looms large in the story, the play's genius is in the concise way it brings forth a variety of overlapping perspectives on identity, success and femininity. Kemp's brisk treatment of the final two acts meets this concision neatly, relying on some convincing and at times hilarious character work from Nikki Shiels and Sarah Ogden, as well as particularly memorable performances by a helpless Eryn Jean Norvill as Marlene's estranged daughter and Theodorakis again as Marlene's care-worn sister, Joyce.
This is a lushly artistic production that confirms the timelessness of Churchill's play. Though it may not be as formally exciting as when it premiered, the ambition of the thing is still startling. And it is a very fine thing to see such ambition played out on a stage like the MTC's Sumner Theatre, something we haven't yet seen enough of in the building's short history.
Nikki Shiels on Top Girls