Review: Herstory at Theatre N16

Following the recent Women’s Marches across the globe, Piers Morgan took to Twitter to complain about “the creeping global emasculation of my gender by rabid feminists” – thereby revealing his ignorance of not only what the marches were all about, but more broadly what feminism even is. But unfortunately, he’s not alone in thinking that being a feminist must necessarily mean that you’re anti-men.

Maybe Piers and co should get themselves down to Theatre N16 in Balham some time and check out the Herstory feminist theatre festival. If they did, they’d find not a horde of hysterical women screaming at an audience of cowering males, but a room buzzing with mutual support and a passionate desire to make a positive change.

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Which is not to say there isn’t anger too; in fact it was anger that inspired Nastazja Somers to start Herstory last year, to say to the theatre industry and society in general, “We’ve had enough.” But Herstory channels that rage into promoting women, not tearing down men – and it does so through a varied programme of topical and courageous work. The first of two nights at Herstory 3 featured eight such pieces, the majority of them solo performances, each representing the female voice on issues including politics, race, dating and mental health.

Not surprisingly, some of the work featured made difficult viewing. In the haunting Promise by Sarah Milton, an occasion that should be joyful – the birth of a baby – is revealed in fact to be a dark tale of child exploitation. All the Colours by Davina Cole is a heartbreaking story of a mother’s struggle to support herself and her son after fleeing the war in Sierra Leone to seek refuge in the UK. Donald Trump makes a (perhaps inevitable, and you can guess in what context) appearance in Grab by Pussy Patrons, and Isabelle Stokes’ Imprints concludes with a graphic account of sexual assault, powerfully performed by Francesca Burgoyne.

There’s a lot of laughter too, though – whether it’s at Sophia Del Pizzo’s fluctuating accent in Assmonkey: In Conversation, Julie Cheung-Inhin’s patient explanation of the geography of East Asia in No More Lotus Flower, or the anxious attempts of Katie Arnstein to write a feminist anthem in Bicycles and Fish: A Girl’s Guide to Feminism. Yet even these stories are shot through with frustration and emotion, as they tackle the devastating impact of anxiety and social pressures on young women, the racial stereotyping faced by actors of East Asian descent, and the shame of a young waitress forced by her manager to ask a breastfeeding mother to leave.

Amidst all this hurt and anger, Julie Vallortigara’s Welcome Home, a movement-based call for authenticity and self-expression, shone like a beacon of hope, summing up beautifully what the festival is all about. And despite the difficult topics explored across the course of the evening, the overwhelming mood as we made our exit was one of optimism. There are many challenges that are and will continue to be faced by women across the globe, but Herstory and its contributors are facing those challenges head on – and the sell-out audience and enthusiastic response to every single performance prove they’re not alone. Sorry, Piers.

Follow @HerstoryN16 on Twitter for details of future festivals.

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