On May 6th 1976 something very different arrived on stage at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. Five women and two men amidst tubs of boiling water and the smell of a Paris laundry. It’s 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, a celebrated revolutionary uprising. But the story was now being told with women laundry workers at its centre – and with live music, songs, tears and laughter.
This was the first performance of Scum: Death, Destruction and Dirty Washing, the opening production of a new theatre company, The Monstrous Regiment.
Named in ironic reference to John Knox’s sixteenth century pamphlet, ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’, the company was created by a group of professional women actors who had first got together just nine months earlier, in August 1975. Angered by the marginal status and stereotypical depiction of women in both mainstream and alternative theatre, they decided to create a professional company that would place women’s lives and experiences centre stage, produce and perform work that met high theatrical standards, and provide serious opportunities for women as performers, writers, directors, designers and technicians.
‘By the end of that meeting in August ’75, had you got a plan in place?’ … ‘We hadn’t got a plan. We had a vision.’ Gillian Hanna, interviewed in May 2016
Men were not excluded from the company, but women would always predominate both on-stage and off-stage. It would operate as a collective (like many radical groups at the time), with everyone paid the same and having an equal voice in decisions. The company would consist largely of performers (actors and musicians), with directors and writers brought in for individual shows. Its productions would be inherently theatrical, not issue-based or agitprop. They would be based on new writing by authors working with the company, not collectively devised by it. And it would be a touring company, performing at both new and established venues.
During its early months, three of the founding group – Chris Bowler, Gillian Hanna and Mary McCusker – took on responsibility for turning this vision into reality (with support from David Bradford, an early enthusiast for the project). Claire Luckham and Chris Bond agreed to write the company’s first show, Scum, and discussions were soon under way with Caryl Churchill for the second, Vinegar Tom.
Successful applications were made to the Arts Council for a guarantee against losses, and to the Gulbenkian Foundation for the costs of an administrator. Sue Beardon was appointed to this position, which became and remained the only full-time paid one in the collective (other members had wages only while working in a show). By this time, the first 10-week tour for Scum had already been booked – well before the script had been completed!
Scum was an instant hit amongst both audiences and (at least many) critics – ‘political theatre at its very best’, as Ros Asquith put it in Time Out – and it generated a lot of excitement wherever it went. When the tour re-started in autumn 1976, it was joined by a second play written specially for the company, Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom.
This was another historical show, and like Scum it had live music composed by Helen Glavin. But it was set in the 17th century world of witch trials, with distinctly modern songs about the treatment of women’s bodies today. The two shows toured in tandem until summer 1977, performing at over 50 venues – some of them well established and equipped (the Gardner Centre in Brighton, the I.C.A. in London, the Sheffield Crucible Studio), others much less so (FE colleges, arts and community centres, social clubs and pubs).
The next year (1977-78) followed the same pattern, but with two new shows. Both, again, with live music written and performed by company members, but otherwise very different from the first two productions and from each other. Kiss and Kill, an experimental piece on men, women and violence by Ann Mitchell and Susan Todd, toured with Floorshow, a musical cabaret about women and work. With material from David Bradford, Caryl Churchill, Bryony Lavery and Michelene Wandor, this hugely successful show was very popular with audiences and seen to break new ground for women’s roles in comedy. The summer tour ended with a brief revival of Scum.
‘The company have been developing a style over the past couple of years that is congenial, intelligent and recognisably their own…’ Ned Chaillet, The Times 1978
‘If this is fringe theatre, let’s hope it’s here to stay’ Beth Chesney, The Journal 1976
By the end of these two years (1976-78) Monstrous Regiment had established itself as a major presence in feminist theatre. It had shown how a performers’ collective – working closely with different writers and with no artistic director – could operate effectively across varied theatrical forms. Valuable relationships had been established with many venues, and the regional arts organisations supporting them.
The quality of its work and success in getting audiences had quickly been recognised by the Arts Council, who awarded it ‘revenue funding’ status in 1977, with a (potentially renewable) three-year grant that made it easier to plan ahead. This status was retained right through to the early 1990s.
However, these two years also took their toll on people’s energy and personal lives. With just a few changes, what was largely the same group had been on the road together for 19 of the 24 months, as well as rehearsing for the four shows. This level of engagement wasn’t really sustainable, and several members decided they needed either a temporary or permanent break from the company’s work. But nobody foresaw what a challenging year lay ahead.
For autumn 1978 it was decided to follow up the success of Floorshow with another cabaret-style production, this time about women’s sexuality. Just three actors from the existing collective took part, joined by three new musician-performers. Written by Bryony Lavery, Time, Gentlemen Please proved extremely controversial, stirring up heated debates and outright hostility from some political groups.
During a performance in Leeds, a semi-organised invasion of the stage took place. Cables and plugs were pulled, and a serious and threatening attempt made to close down the show. It almost succeeded.
‘We were using the best of ourselves and our skills to map out a new place for women to be. We said it was centre stage, but there were occasions it felt more like the front line’. Mary McCusker 1991
The next show was much less traumatic. Written by David Edgar with Susan Todd, Teendreams looked at the impact of the women’s movement on different generations. It was performed by what was now a slightly changed full company, and toured in the early months of 1979. By then, bookings were already being made for the summer tour of a play that had not yet been written. But the script never arrived. Rashly putting aside their ‘no devised plays’ principle, a show based on Anita Loos’s 1925 novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was collectively devised. It was abandoned after half a dozen performances.
A great deal of soul-searching ensued. Some felt the time might have come to call it a day. But most were determined to carry on. With an autumn tour already booked for the show, Bryony Lavery rescued the situation by quickly writing an entirely new play based on the same novel. The hundreds of unused posters were over-printed with her name as author, and with a couple of new performers and great new music and songs, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Mark Two went on the road in October 1979. And didn’t stop till April 1980. Audiences loved it. It was one of the company’s biggest box-office hits, including full houses for its run at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.
It was also the show during which its worst tragedy occurred. Angela Hopkins, its brilliant and greatly loved director, who had restored the company’s belief in itself and its future, was killed in a car-crash on her way to see one of the performances.
Having overcome the previous year’s difficulties, a season of U.K. Premieres of foreign plays was mounted in 1980-81, aiming to challenge the insularity of British audiences and to avoid some of the risks of touring ‘unknown quantities’. From Italy came Dacia Maraini’s Dialogue Between a Prostitute and One of Her Clients; from France, Théâtre de l’Aquarium’s Shakespeare’s Sister (both translated by Gillian Hanna), and from America, Honor Moore’s Mourning Pictures All involved the performers learning to work in unfamiliar theatrical styles.
Dialogue required the two actors to come out of their characters at certain points and debate issues about sex with the audience. This had caused riots in Italy, and raised the temperature even in Britain, where it toured extensively before playing also in the Netherlands. Shakespeare’s Sister was notable for its striking visual imagery and the physical demands it placed on performers. First produced in December 1980 at the I.C.A., directed by Hilary Westlake, it was admired even by theatre critics who seemed to hate everything else the company did. It was later revived for two tours in 1982. Mourning Pictures was a free verse depiction of the writer’s relationship with her dying mother. A touring show with live music by Tony Haynes, it was later recorded and broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
Towards the end of 1981 the company returned to newly commissioned work. In Yoga Class, the novelist Rose Tremain gently explored how members of a local authority yoga class begin to share and reflect on their experiences. It was folowed in 1982 by Melissa Murray’s historical epic, The Execution, which focused on the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II [and questions about revolutionary violence]. It looked and sounded beautifully Russian [(with costumes by Gemma Jackson and music by Lindsay Cooper)], but its three and a half hour playing time proved difficult for touring. When the planned trip to Australia fell through, the high cost of its large cast and long rehearsal period [its high production costs] left the company in financial difficulties, at a time when arts funding was already coming under pressure from the Conservative government.
For the next couple of years, consequently, small cast productions became a necessity. But they turned out to include some of the company’s most imaginative and well-received shows. First came Franca Rama and Dario Fo’s The Fourth Wall, translated by Gillian Hanna, about the women of the Baader-Meinhoff gang, with Paolo Dionisotti enacting the text while Maggie Nichols sang in improvised counterpoint. It was followed by Calamity, by Bryony Lavery, in which Quiet Kate and Madame Moustache join Calamity Jane in a three-wagon train across the Wild West. Hugely entertaining, its 1983 tour was followed by longer runs at the Tricycle Theatre in London and the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and invited performances at the 1984 International Theatre Festival in Rome.
1984 continued with another three-woman show: Enslaved by Dreams, written and directed by Chris Bowler. But this time the three [named only by the colours of their dresses] represent different facets of just one person, (implicitly) Florence Nightingale [cartwheeling across the stage, lying in bed swamped by computer print-outs, emptying buckets of waste]. It was followed by Origin of the Species: A Love Story, another show written for the company by Bryony Lavery, in which archeologist Mollie Starkey digs up her five-million-year-old ancestor, Victoria, and starts teaching her to speak. This was a co-production with Birmingham Repertory Theatre – a financially helpful arrangement being tried for the first time.
So when, in the summer of 1985, the company celebrated its 10th Anniversary – with a stunning brochure designed by Jo Angell – it could look back at its record with considerable pride. The key elements of its founding mission – to put women’s experience centre stage in high quality professional theatre, with women to the fore not only as performers but as writers, directors, composers, designers and technicians – had been sustained throughout, and its leading position in feminist theatre was widely recognised.
‘Over the years, Monstrous Regiment have produced a really quite dazzling series of pieces, which have managed to be both complex and celebratory, to combine artistic maturity with political clout.’ David Edgar, 1985
What had proved more difficult to sustain was its vision of a performers’ collective – largely due to financial constraints, but also to changes of political culture. The membership of ten or so (including administrator and tour manager) in its early years had shrunk by the mid-80s to four or five: the three remaining founder members (Chris Bowler, Gillian Hanna and Mary McCusker); the administrator (Sandy Bailey from 1983 to 1987) and the tour manager.
Monstrous Regiment had become, in effect, a collectively run production company. It had also become an all-women collective, while continuing to have male actors in individual shows.
Operating as a production company meant that separate casts were recruited for each show, and members of the collective were not expected to perform in all or most productions. This had potential advantages in terms of the diversity of performers and kinds of shows that could be produced. But it also meant that performers could no longer be expected to contribute to the company’s management, and it posed risks for the coherence of the company’s artistic identity.
The main production for 1985 was Point of Convergence. Devised and directed by Chris Bowler for a summer scheme at the Cockpit Theatre in London, it combined professional actors with unemployed young women in exploring the different physicalities of conflicting forms of female identity. It had been preceded by experimental workshops at the Donmar Warehouse on Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s Macbeths, led by the distinguished voice and movement director, Bettina Jopic.
The company’s two 1986 shows were very much influenced by contemporary political concerns. My Song is Free was set inside a Chilean detention centre during the 1970s military dictatorship. A translation of the exiled Argentinian playwright Jorge Diaz’s Canto Libre, it was based on the personal accounts of four ‘disappeared’ women. Alarms was written for the company by the American playwright Susan Yankowitz. It featured a modern-day Cassandra warning against the risks of nuclear power. Pre-rehearsal workshops coincided with the major radiation leak at Chernobyl. After its U.K. tour the show went to the U.S.A, to open the 1987 Boston Women in Theatre Festival.
“We were given the most warm reception by our American hosts and audiences, who seemed to respect Monstrous Regiment as something close to a grandmother of women’s theatre from over the Atlantic.” Gerda Stevenson, cast member, 1991
American connections continued with the company’s 1987 production of Wendy Kesselman’s My Sister in this House, a dense and claustrophobic play based on a notorious murder case in France in 1933. Previously produced in the U.S.A., this British premiere (a co-production with Leicester Haymarket Theatre) met with critical acclaim, especially during its extended London run at Hampstead Theatre – whose publicity obscured Monstrous Regiment’s role to the extent that it went unmentioned in most reviews.
The next two shows, in 1988, both focused on the lives and experiences of older women, which had been little explored even in feminist theatre. Waving, by Carol Bunyan, was set in a Spanish beach bar, where two middle-aged women with unenviable marriages are joined by a suicidally inclined mother and her daughter. The setting for Island Life was an old people’s home, in which two white and two black women, with very different personal histories, deal with the realities of ageing. It was commissioned from Jenny Mcleod and co-produced with Nottingham Playhouse.
The benefits of diversity and flexibility in casting were apparent in this series of productions. They were well received by audiences and critics, and they were fully in line with the kinds of theatrical work to which Monstrous Regiment was committed. But there was a worry that its own artistic identity, and what was distinctive about its shows, was becoming less clear. Partly for this reason the company’s next three productions saw the return of Gillian Hanna and Mary McCusker (who had also been in Alarms) as performers.
For A Common Woman (1988-89), Hanna translated and performed a sequence of one-woman scripts by Franca Rame and Dario Fo, including ‘The Rape’, based on Rame’s own experience with a Fascist gang. The show won a Time Out theatre award. In Beatrice (1989), written by Ian Brown and based on LeRoy Ladurie’s Montaillou, McCusker took on the personal and religious life of a fourteenth century Cathar heretic, standing her ground against the Inquisition.
And in Love Story of the Century (1990) the two joined forces in an adaptation by Clare Venables of the Finnish writer Marta Tikkanen’s narrative poem about her marriage to an alcoholic. Music by Joanna McGregor and Moggie Douglas’s design provided the atmospheric background as the two performers shifted between different facets of the female character.
1990 proved to be a pivotal year. The company’s fifteenth anniversary was marked by a programme of three major productions and (a little later) the publication of Monstrous Regiment: A Collective Celebration, edited by Gillian Hanna. But the company also received the final report of an Arts Council appraisal, identifying problems that had to be addressed before its funding for the next 3-year period (1991 to 1994) could be agreed.
Starting with Love Story of the Century (noted earlier), the anniversary season moved on next to More Than One Antoinette. Written and directed by Debbie Shewell, it followed the journeys of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Antoinette Cosway, the Creole heiress and first Mrs Rochester in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. The season ended with The Colony Comes a Cropper, a co-production with Salisbury Playhouse, in which the Australian writer Robyn Archer provided a twentieth century follow-up to Marivaux’s eighteenth century comedy about a struggle for power by the women of a shipwrecked colony.
The Arts Council report raised concerns about the company’s artistic identity, its commissioning process, and its collective management structure, with a full-time administrator supported only by four part-time, unpaid company members (the original trio plus Katrina Duncan, who had joined the collective in 1989). A more conventional arrangement was recommended, in which a newly appointed senior executive would be responsible, with the administrator, to a board of directors, enlarged to provide a wider range of expertise (the need for which had been recognised by the recent establishment of an Advisory Committee).
To carry out the work needed to respond to these concerns, Mary McCusker took on a temporary role as full-time executive director in August 1990. She had already initiated a series of workshops for women writers at the Drill Hall in London (some geared especially to older and to disabled women) coordinated by Tash Fairbanks, the company’s new writer-in-residence. This ran alongside a 1990-91 series of rehearsed readings, with plays by Jenny McLeod (The Mango Tree), Sheila Goff (Understanding The Dangers), Kay Trainor (Bad Girl), Tash Fairbanks (This Little Corner), Peta Masters (Call It Thursday), Lavinia Murray (Never Did I) and Jenny Morris (Caring)].
Early in 1991 the proposals drawn up by McCusker to address the Arts Council’s concerns were agreed by the company and submitted to the Council. They included plans for each year’s major touring production to be selected from commissioned scripts performed the previous year in a Monstropus Regiment ‘home season’ at a single venue, and for the appointment of a full-time artistic director who would provide the company’s work with a more recognisable identity, and be responsible to a suitably augmented board.
The Arts Council agreed to such an appointment being made, and in March 1991 Clare Venables became the company’s first artistic director. She had recently completed a very successful ten-year period in this role at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre, and had previously worked with Monstrous Regiment on several projects. It seemed the perfect appointment.
Clare Venables’ initial plan was for the company to produce one classic and one modern play each year. She got to work soon with the first of these, her own adaptation of Euripedes’s Medea, with an autumn 1991 tour followed in the new year by three weeks at the Lilian Baylis Theatre in London. The production was controversial, with some people loving, and others hating, what they saw as its relocation of classical tragedy within the domestic sphere. Later that year she directed a double bill by Amanda Symonds and Paula Webb in a studio production for an invited audience.
‘What characterised Monsters was their chutzpah, their refusal to be cowed as they looked at some of the appalling injustices being done to women. Like tragedy, their shows energised, because they had the guts to look those painful experiences in the face’ Clare Venables, Time Out January 1992
However, the Arts Council were not persuaded by the broader plans for the company’s future that she went on to submit to them, with board’s support, and in May 1992 they informed the company that it would not receive revenue (by that time called ‘franchise’) funding for 1993-4 or 1994-5. Instead it could apply only for ‘project’ funding during those years, i.e. funding for specific productions. If these applications and projects were successful, it could then re-apply for 3-year revenue funding.
After much agonising, and a long series of meetings – at one of which Venables proposed that the company should shift more radically from its past character, change its name and become a ‘women’s arts lab’ – it was decided not to apply for project funding, and instead to become dormant, once the next planned production was completed. Returning to one of the company’s early theatrical forms, Venables directed I’ve Got Nothing to Wear – A Cabaret of Women, which toured from January to March 1993. Through music, comedy, dance and a lot of audience participation, it explored the uncertainties and complexities of living in what many had come to view as a post-feminist age.
The board’s decision to stop producing plays for the time being was bitterly disappointing for its members. But it was agreed that the company should be kept in existence as a legal entity, with the hope that funding regimes and the political climate might become more favourable to producing the kind of work they believed in. Meanwhile they continued to speak at conferences, meet with students, and give interviews to writers.
‘The enduring relationship of these three women – Chris Bowler, Gillian Hanna and Mary McCusker – was what kept the company going through difficult financial times and provided a pattern of continuity to the groups’ artistic programme, administration, and public profile’ Elaine Aston Feminist Theatre Voices 1997
Soon after the final production in 1993, the company’s archives – the artistic and administrative records held in its office – were transferred to the Fawcett Library, repository of a huge collection on the women’s movement in Britain. Unfortunately the Monstrous Regiment archives were never catalogued, and remained unavailable to researchers for the next 20 years. They were then (as part of what had been re-named the Women’s Library) moved briefly to the London School of Economics, where a full listing of the archive contents was produced, and damaged tapes repaired. Finally, in 2015, they were transferred to the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Archives, where a launch event for the archive was held in October 2016, with the cataloguing of the archive well under way.
By the time the company’s archives arrived at the V&A, the public accessibility of its history and theatrical work, which had already benefited greatly from Gillian Hanna’s first-hand historical account in Monstrous Regiment: A Collective Celebration (1991), had received a major boost from Unfinished Histories, a project to record the history of Alternative Theatre from 1968 to 1988. It had created a website with pages for a large number of companies from this period, complete with digitised images, including a very informative one about Monstrous Regiment. This demonstration of what could be done, even without access to the company’s archives, made the idea of a website making extensive use of these very attractive.
So too was another element in the Unfinished Histories project, the recording of retrospective interviews with key participants in alternative theatre during this period. This hadn’t yet been done with the Monstrous Regiment founding members, as distinct from directors and writers who had worked with the company. So in April 2016 a jointly organised audio interview of Gillian Hanna and Mary McCusker took place.
Sadly, Chris Bowler had died two years earlier, in 2014. She had worked closely with Unfinished Histories on the pages they were constructing for the company, and had been enthusiastic about bringing the story of Monstrous Regiment into the digital age. Her absence from the April 2016 interview, and from the October 2016 archive launch, were hard for others to bear
Substantial extracts from the 2016 interview are included on this website. So too (thanks to its publisher’s agreement) is the complete text of Gillian Hanna’s 1991 historical account, which had been out of print for some years. The history of the company that has been presented here, on this website, is based to a significant extent on these two sources, combined with and modified by information deriving from the archive.