Fickle Favours All-Female Theatre Company

Fionola Meredith considers the pros and cons of Fickle Favours, Belfast's first all-female theatre company, as they prepare for their first production

Where are all the women? It's a cry that often goes up from feminists concerned about the lack of female representatives and commentators in politics, public life and the media. But there's much less of a fuss kicked up about the relative absence of women in UK theatre.

It's true that there are plenty of them in the audience – for example, 68% of West End theatregoers are female – but there are an awful lot fewer taking part in the action.

Figures indicate that only 35% of stage roles are played by women, 23% of directors are women, and a paltry 17% of writers are – you guessed it – women. Now a new Belfast-based theatre company aims to redress this stark imbalance.

Fickle Favours, founded by Aislinn Clarke – director of the highly-regarded Wireless Mystery Theatre period performance group – wants to produce more plays written by women, to increase the number of roles for women and to give more women theatre-production and direction experience in Northern Ireland.

The company's first project, Shakespeare's Sisters, will take to the stage of the Black Box in Belfast on March 28 – 29. I, for one, am very much looking forward to it.

Featuring new work by writers Maggie Cronin, Andrea Montgomery and Moyra Donaldson, Shakespeare’s Sisters is a variety show of 12 theatrical vignettes – including ensemble pieces, monologues, musical asides and shadow puppets – written from the point of view of Shakespeare's great female characters.

Clarke argues that the production will allow modern Northern Irish women writers, directors and actors 'a chance to explore some of Shakespeare’s most memorable female characters that never got a proper airing back in the day'.

'Nowadays more Shakespeare is performed in the UK than any other works, so this imbalance is constantly being perpetuated. The point of Shakespeare’s Sisters is to highlight that imbalance in gender representation in UK theatre.'

The lack of women in important roles in theatre is undeniable: it's a dearth that significantly limits the scope and colour of theatrical performance. But there are, thankfully, other companies like Fickle Favours that are attempting to challenge the status quo elsewhere in the UK.

Agent 160, a London-based theatre company that produces work by female playwrights, is named after Aphra Behn, the first woman to earn her living as a playwright.

Behn was also a spy, codename Agent 160. This company is keen to emphasize that it's not a campaigning organisation. 'We just write about what we want to write about,' says Agent 160's Lisa Parry, 'refusing to be pigeon-holed by our gender, age, class, sexuality or location.'

Just as in the fields of politics and public life, the risk is that, by categorising themselves primarily as women writing, or directing, or acting, the Fickle Favours crew could, perhaps, paint themselves into a gendered corner.

Nevertheless, Clarke argues that audiences are not hearing enough women's stories, and that the stories that we do hear in Northern Ireland are usually from the perspective of men.

That's true, but it's equally important that gender does not become the defining marker of a narrative. What constitutes 'women's stories', after all? And how do they differ from 'men's stories'? That's why Agent 160's aim of simply 'writing about what we want to write about' is vital – otherwise gender simply becomes another form of restriction, or of special pleading.

Such concerns aside, the emergence of Fickle Favours is an initiative to be warmly welcomed. After all, it's surely better to light a candle than to curse the sexist darkness.

Shakespeare's Sisters is presented at the Black Box, Belfast in conjunction with International Women’s Day on March 28–29.