With four actors playing one single character, Claire Dowie’s Why Is John Lennon Wearing A Skirt? is a personal drama unlike any other. Taking the form of a single dramatic monologue, Dowie’s play explores the life of a girl struggling to grow up under societal pressure to conform to gender norms. Rejecting cultural concepts of femininity whilst simultaneously never fully embracing masculinity, ‘John’ exposes the absurdity of society’s expectations of women and wonders why, even today, people can’t just be who they want to be. Shortly before the first run, Impact spoke to director Chloe Richardson and actors Kate Maguire, Rosie Hudson, Michaela Green and Lillian Race.
For a play that covers so serious and pertinent a topic, it was perhaps surprising to learn that the first thing which drew Richardson to the script was the humour.
“One of the main reasons I chose it is because it’s funny,” she explains. “I think it’s really important to understand the context of gender and how it affects us in a negative way, but I think the best way to approach political messages is through a funny medium.”
“It’s not always necessary to just preach. I know a lot of people go to the theatre and don’t want to see an overly political play. They just want to go in, have a laugh and leave.”
“I’m John Lennon because why not?”
Indeed the very premise of the play – that the one character models herself entirely upon John Lennon – is inherently humorous. But below this quirky set-up lies a more complex message.
“She thinks that John Lennon is just the best,” Maguire explains. “She’s just like ‘I’m John Lennon because why not?’ In fact we never even learn her real name.”
Yet this desire to emulate Lennon is what drives John to look at the world from a totally different perspective to others. As Maguire puts it: “It’s about her realisations and her questioning why everyone can’t just be themselves and not have to worry about what they should be.”
However, unlike last week’s Swallow, Dowie’s play is not a specific exploration of transgender identity.
“Our interpretation of this script is that she is not transgender,” considers Richardson; “she just wants to be the woman that she wants to be, and not the woman she’s expected to be.”
“the cast benefitted hugely from speaking to members of the LGBTQ Society about their experiences”
“I think if this play was written today then we would probably deem her to be non-binary or gender-fluid,” adds Green. “But as it was written in the nineties we realised that kind of education would not yet be on offer to her.”
Nonetheless, the cast benefitted hugely from speaking to members of the LGBTQ Society about their experiences. As Green explains: “We spoke to some members of the society who identified as gender-fluid or non-binary, and they offered some really interesting insights.”
As well as tackling such a serious issue, the cast also had the added pressure of producing a play in just three weeks.
“This is my first play with such a quick turnover, so it’s been interesting to suddenly get that close to people,” notes Green.
“Not that you had a choice,” chuckles Race.
“The writing is so dynamic…”
Dowie’s script certainly presents a challenge to the actors, with the highly complex character of John forcing them to approach the text from a variety of different angles.
“You can really take it how you want,” Hudson explains. “The writing is so dynamic that you can just take the monologue and run with it in whichever way you feel.”
“I think we’ve brought our own personalities to the character,” she adds, “which definitely makes the performance feel more well-rounded.”
“Some plays are just serious or just funny,” agrees Green. “In this you can deliver one line that is hilarious and then follow it with a line that just says ‘hang on, this is so wrong.’”
“It’s really interesting to test your levels and see how quickly you can turn a message on its head.”
“the visually striking nature of the set gives the audience some insight into the reasoning behind John’s decisions”
Naturally, the set reflects the tone of the play. With the back wall plastered with women’s magazine cut-outs and the floor covered in scrawled messages (including some well-placed obscenities), the staging clearly mirrors the theories and contradictions being turned over in John’s mind.
“The vibe we were going for with the set was that it should look like a kind of warped bedroom,” explains Green. “There’s a saturation of female images taken from the media that are just completely ridiculous.”
“For me, it’s about looking at that wall and just thinking ‘this is how women are portrayed’.”
For Richardson, the visually striking nature of the set gives the audience some insight into the reasoning behind John’s decisions. “A lot of the character’s views on feminine women I find quite hard to identify with, but when you see the magazines on the back and how negatively they portray women it makes it so much clearer as to why John is against femininity.”
“The message is to understand why you are the way you are, and to be who you are regardless of what other people think”
John may be a difficult person to agree with at times, but this rawness of character is vital to grabbing the attention of the audience.
“I don’t want audience members to come out opinionless,” continues Green. “I don’t care if they love it or hate it, so long as they have that opinion.”
“I want them to feel challenged,” agrees Maguire. “I don’t care if they disagree with her, so long as they can think about why they disagree. It’s about making people think and really start a conversation.”
“It’s not about telling people that they can’t be feminine or they can’t be masculine or you can’t conform to the stereotype,” adds Richardson. “The message is to understand why you are the way you are, and to be who you are regardless of what other people think.”
Sharp, witty, and more than a little unusual, Why Is John Lennon Wearing A Skirt? is an exploration of the harmful nature of conformity that will keep you thinking long after the final curtain.
Why Is John Lennon Wearing A Skirt? is on at the Nottingham New Theatre 7th to 10th March 2018.
Play poster courtesy of the Nottingham New Theatre.