The Age of Arousal examines of a key period for feminism
Stellar Quines’ newest production at Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Stellar Quines’ newest production is at once a contemporary and a historical examination of a key period for feminism. Kirstin Innes talks sensuality with director Muriel Romanes.
The Age of Arousal is something of an unusual choice for the Lyceum, where recent programming has tended towards 20th century classics and adaptations of well-known texts: a 2007 play based on an out-of-print Victorian novel and written by Linda Griffiths, who, despite a lauded 30-year career in theatre, is much better known in her native Canada than here. However, this UK premiere of what has already become something of a classic play in North America is a Lyceum co-production with Stellar Quines, and is a labour of love for director Muriel Romanes, who fell for it after being specially invited to the first Toronto production.
‘I loved the play. I wasn’t sure about the particular production, but I loved the play. It just felt like the sort of work that Stellar Quines should be doing: although it’s set in 1885 there are these enormous resonances with the modern day. It’s about the women who came out of the suffrage movement, all the great varieties of women. And it’s so sensory. Sexual, sensual, sensory. I think theatre has to be more like that.’
Having picked up George Gissing’s little-known novel The Odd Woman, an early look at feminism, in a bargain bin, Griffiths used his characters as a jumping off point to examine a period of increased sexual and political awareness in female lives.
‘Oh, don’t bother reading the book!’ says Romanes, laughing. ‘It’s so dull; so Victorian! What Linda found in it was an interesting situation, interesting characters to build The Age of Arousal on. There was a great gender imbalance in the population in 1885; a great many more women than men, so there were lots of these ‘odd women’ left. Our lead character, Mary Barfoot, is a woman in her 60s who has opened one of the first secretarial schools and taught women to have their own lives as secretaries. These women were on the cusp of so much at that time: there’s a wonderful scene where the characters go to the first ever impressionists exhibition in London, and have these strange, sensory responses to a sort of art they’ve never seen before: great swathes of colour, nude bodies, sexuality.’
Despite the sexy corseted figures on the posters, The Age of Arousal is much more complex than your average period bodice-ripper. The story might examine female sexuality at a time when it first began to take public, visible shape, but what Romanes responded to, and has drawn out in the Stellar Quines production, are the parallels with contemporary society.
‘We’ve kind of subverted things: it’s set in 1885 but we’re putting modern applications onto it. The costumes and set are both of the time and of the period. And it’s so, so relevant. I’ve actually just been rehearsing a scene with Ann Louise Ross (playing Mary Barfoot), where she says ‘I’m 60 now, and nothing has changed. I’m tired of it!’ And nothing has changed, really. I’m in my 60s, and I feel the sentiment. We’ve fought all our lives, and feminism has not made nearly as many advances as it should have done. I think there will be a great number of people in the audience who will respond to that.’
The Age of Arousal, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, Fri 18 Feb–Sat 12 Mar.