Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls - feminism vs. culture

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To change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society, from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation, to a get-up-and-go instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain. Top Girls is, of course, a period piece, born of the social and economic transformations that the election in of a Conservative government with Thatcher as its leader brought about. But it is a mighty perky period piece. It was not just a horribly accurate forecast of how ruthless the s would be, but also an uncannily accurate prediction of the dilemmas facing the post- feminist, post-Marlene generation.

Long before anyone coined the phrase "having it all", Churchill in Top Girls was exploring whether you could be a mother and have a successful career, whether getting to the top involved killing some aspect of yourself, what sisterhood really meant. Just over eight months before Top Girls hit the stage, 40 women had marched from Cardiff to Greenham Common to protest against the deployment of Cruise missiles. In a decade in which the Marlene kind of woman "two steaks and lots of potatoes - rare" became a role model, it seemed as if only the Greenham protestors and the miners' wives provided alternative im ages of women.

Top Girls begins with one of the most famous scenes in modern drama. Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Oxford Stage Company, which is producing the new West End revival, calls it "a dazzling intellectual fantasia, a technically brilliant circus act that flings around heavyweight intellectual conceit as if it were light as air". The setting is a dinner party in a London restaurant thrown by Marlene, the newly promoted managing director of the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests are famous women from history and myth, including Pope Joan, the Victorian traveller Isabella Bird, the 13th-century Japanese courtesan turned Buddhist nun Lady Nijo, Dull Gret from Brueghel's painting depicting a woman in armour running through hell and routing devils, and Patient Griselda, whose story is told in The Canterbury Tales.

From this dazzling set piece the play becomes a theatrical shape-shifter. It shows how Marlene has abandoned her own daughter, the dull Angie - a teenager who certainly doesn't "have what it takes" - so she can carve out a career. Miss Churchill's examination of the current state of women's aspirations in England parallels the kind of reassessment of feminist goals and achievements that has been going on for some time in this country, where many feminists are concerned that the visible successes of the few have not altered the economic straits of the majority.

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Aficionados of the rollicking ''Cloud 9'' will recognize Miss Churchill's characteristic iconoclasm in her new work; ''Top Girls'' is nothing if not audacious. The first scene is a dinner party given by Marlene, in honor of her own promotion, for a select group of other women, both real and fictional: Chaucer's Patient Griselda; Pope Joan, of the ninth century who may or may not have been apocryphal-scholars disagree ; a 13th-century Japanese courtesanturned-Buddhist-nun named Lady Nijo; a 19th-century Victorian, Isabella Bird, who traveled the globe, and Dull Gret, who led an army of other women into hell to fight the devils in Brueghel's painting ''Dulle Griet.

The dinner party is followed by a series of scenes jumping back and forth in time to reveal the relationships between Marlene, her sister Joyce and Angie, as well as to expose the irreconcilable class conflict that has arisen between two daughters of the same parents. Born to grinding lower-class poverty in the provinces, Marlene still hates her alcoholic father for abusing her downtrodden mother, and she recalls with passion her own early determination to get out and make something of her life. Moreover, she believes fervently in her own success story: Anyone should be able to make it, she argues, provided they are not ''stupid, lazy or frightened - I'm not going to help them get a job.

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Why should I? Mired in the poverty and responsibilities Marlene has left behind, her resentful sister asks her sourly, ''And if they haven't? Its structure is as complex as its content; Marlene is the only character who appears in both the dinner-party scene and in the rest of the play, and the dinner party itself is a complicated tapestry, with simultaneous conversations overlapping and competing for attention.

The actresses all play two or more roles, except for Gwen Taylor, who plays Marlene. But what Marlene's agency is seeking to do is to make its clients conform to the male stereotypes. Marlene is an individualist, concerned only with her own advancement; she doesn't take into account the likes of Angie and her less fortunate sister.

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Gwen Taylor adds: ''Marlene denies anyone who hasn't got her drive and ambition the privilege of being helped. She doesn't see why she should go out of her way to help anyone who doesn't have her fire.

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She's done it; why can't they? She thinks you shouldn't expect the state or anyone to help you, and even when confronted with her own daughter's lack of any possible future, she doesn't think it's any of her own concern. What Caryl Churchill is doing is asking you to reassess what is happening to the popular women's movement, not necessarily the intellectual feminist.

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