In Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has created a terrifying portrait of a person who embodies two of the major movements in modern society; the continuing reverberations of the feminist movement running headlong into society’s obsession with individualism and self-actualisation. It is of a person whose self-involved narcissism and belief in the right to be free to control one’s life-choices blinds them to any impact their actions may have on others. Fleabag continually rejects culpability for the paths she takes and even refines poor decisions into positive self-affirming actions. Fleabag is a 21st century manifestation of the id, rampant and uncontrolled.
It is also the funniest play that has hit London this year.
Rare is the playwright that truly captures the language of real life and turns it into something dramatically interesting. I have regularly extolled the virtues of Nick Payne for his skill in crafting modern, believable dialogue for his characters; Waller-Bridge shares this talent whilst going further to infuse it with a poetic, heightened language that is rooted in the everyday.
It is startling to be confronted by a modern text that so positively drips with a love for sonorous language but yet doesn’t strive to root itself in the past. Every line feels written by someone with a deep respect for classical theatre but who understands that respect is best shown by not looking backwards and instead immersing yourself in the culture that surrounds you.
Monologues are as pure a form of theatre as it gets for writers and performers; there is no hiding place, the production rests and falls on the skill of the actor and the quality of language. Waller-Bridge spent a fair proportion of her last production, Mydidae, naked on stage so is better placed than most to quibble about the nature of exposure but Fleabag contains a ruthless emotional honesty that is shockingly, brutally, exposing.
Mydidae explored how removing our physical covering makes it easier to create a passage to the emotional core, whereas Fleabag removes all pretence and from its first moments delves into the deepest crevices of the mind of an independent, assured modern woman and probes it for cracks in the surface; the vulnerabilities that face all woman in an age of supposed liberation – political, economic, social and above all else, sexual.
For this is a monologue that is steeped in the current dialogues surrounding feminism and what it means to the generation that did not have to fight for it. It is here that Fleabag demonstrates the elements that have seen it be championed as one of the picks of the Edinburgh Fringe. It studiously avoids the polemics and instead displays its arguments through subtle highlighting of how hard-won equality under the law is still being undermined by socio-cultural norms.
Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is a monster – a ravenous sexual entity that seemingly cannot discriminate between friend and conquest, desire and lust, attraction and obsession – but constantly the audience is reminded of how this may be viewed if the person delivering the monologue was a man.
The player/slut debate that Fleabag circles has been around for years and may seem like a hoary old trope but that doesn’t make it any less valid a reference point. A generation of woman have been brought up to believe that the battle has been won but changing the law does not lead to changing lives. The Twitter trolls and the campaigns over the increased use of sexualised imagery on the front covers of lads mags has shown that skirmishes continue.
Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag uses her body as a tool for her own personal gratification and talks in the frankest terms of an obsessive relationship with pornography. Does this debase her or does it set her free? Has she been enslaved by a masculine-fantasy of feminist equality – the idea that freedom to choose means becoming a hedonist to pleasure – or is she is a liberated self-actualised feminist who has rejected the traditional gender values of chastity and purity placed on woman by a patriarchal society?
Buy the text from Nick Hern books here