Katherine Kingsley as Marlene
National Theatre 2019
Photo: Johan Persson
045 – Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill
The curtain rises on a restaurant table set for six. Marlene has arrived to host a dinner party to celebrate her promotion at work – she is now the Managing Director of a recruitment agency called Top Girls. The friends who arrive to celebrate with her are not colleagues from her office or even from her personal life – they are female figures of some renown from different ages of history. So begins one of the most extraordinary and brilliant scenes of theatre ever conceived, in which six women from across history share their triumphs and challenges, loves and losses, over dinner and several bottles of Frascati.
This is the first act of Caryl Churchill’s modern classic, Top Girls, which premiered at the Royal Court in 1982 and has been revived many times since. Although the play reflected some of the political and social concerns of Britain at the time that it was written in the early 1980s, it is revived and studied on education curricula not just for its extraordinary opening scene, but for its innovative structure and for its enduring questions about the opportunities, and opportunity costs, for women who may seek to be ‘top girls’.
My expert guest in this episode is Professor Elaine Aston, who also joined me in episode 30 to talk about Caryl Churchill’s play Escaped Alone.
The 2019 National Theatre production of Top Girls is available to watch here on NT at Home.
Elaine Aston is a Professor at the Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University, and the author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill which she has updated in three editions published by Northcote House, as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill and the Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights from Cambridge University Press. Elaine is acclaimed for her work on theatre research and feminism, publishing several books on Feminist Theatre Practice, and currently serves as the President of the International Federation for Theatre Research.
Elaine recommended Posh by Laura Wade
Frank Wedekind’s dark, expressionist play Spring Awakening is a cautionary portrait of adolescent angst and rebellion against oppressive social strictures and family pressures. Its frank depiction of sex and violence remains shocking more than 130 years after it was written, and it is the unlikely source of the award-winning modern musical of the same name.
I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Karen Leeder to explore the contemporary controversies and enduring relevance of this extraordinary play.
Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible recreates the terror of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 when a religious hysteria gripped the Puritan community. Miller wrote the play in 1953, when America was going through a modern witch hunt prosecuting Communist sympathisers. The play is Miller’s most frequently produced, its portrait of personal betrayal and institutional tyranny being universally recognised in any time or society.
I’m delighted to welcome back to the podcast Miller expert, Dr Stephen Marino, to explore the origins and enduring relevance of Miller’s powerful, cautionary play.
Bertolt Brecht wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 1944 while in exile in the United States as a parable about the chaos and costs of war. After his return to East Germany in 1948 he updated the play to set it in the context of post-war Communism. His fable is both a theatrical fairy-tale and a political allegory.
I’m delighted to welcome the director of the first major London revival for 25 years, Christopher Haydon, artistic director of the Rose Theatre to discuss this challenging, complicated, compelling, even crazy play.