DPhil Thesis: ‘Experiments with Realism in Contemporary Feminist Theatre in Britain’


This thesis re-encounters classic texts of feminist theatre theory by Elin Diamond, Jill Dolan, Sue-Ellen Case and Elaine Aston in the light of formally experimental theatre by women in the 2010s. In particular, it revisits the feminist critique of realism, which characterised realism as an inherently conservative form. Although the critique has been challenged and nuanced since the 1980s, including by its original proponents, I suggest that a political suspicion of realism continues to underlie many critical approaches to theatrical form in contemporary theatre studies, particularly feminist ones.

While Dolan, Aston and Janelle Reinelt have characterised the 1990s and 2000s as something of a crisis for both feminism and feminist theatre, I argue that the 2010s has seen a new wave of feminist playwrights and theatre-makers in Britain, who are deeply concerned with the politics of theatrical form. I contend that this new wave of feminist playwrights engages in critical and creative dialogue with realisms within experimental forms in order to question gender norms and imagine alternative political realities.

My case studies each focus on a different aspect of theatrical form: the representation of gender and gendered performance in physical theatre company RashDash’s Two Man Show (2016) and Three Sisters (2018); experiments with naturalist character in the collaborations between director Katie Mitchell and playwright Alice Birch on Ophelias Zimmer (2015) and Anatomy of a Suicide (2017); and Ella Hickson’s dramatising of a search for a theatrical form that can express female desire in The Writer (2018). Close reading of these plays in performance, combined with interviews with the practitioners and attention to the productions’ reception, reveal insights that build on and complicate the feminist theories of the 1980s and 90s, especially regarding the performance of gender, character and acting, and play structure.

As a whole, the thesis reconsiders how experiments with realisms in theatre can be politically progressive, modelling a method of analysis that brings together feminist theory and criticism with close attention to theatrical form. It also contributes to emerging critical conversations about the place of formal analysis within theatre studies.

Research collaborations

At Oxford, I co-convened the Theatre & Performance network, which provides an interdisciplinary intellectual home for theatre researchers across the university. Events I’ve organised as part of this have included a biweekly critical reading group, a day symposium on collaboration in theatre, ‘in conversation’ events with playwrights Ella Hickson and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and academic talks by Professor Dan Rebellato, Professor David Wiles, and Dr Emma Whipday. I am also Postgraduate Representative for the Theatre and Performance Research Association.

I’m currently exploring how I can better bring my academic research together with my practice as a playwright. I received funding from the TORCH Theatres Seed Fund to collaborate with colleagues from the Classics Faculty and Pegasus Theatre to develop a practice as research project around my queer reimagining of Euripides’ Andromeda. You can read more about the first phase of the project here.