Madeline Gould’s new show Ladykiller has just won the Vault Festival 2019 Pleasance Award. The play explores the label ‘psychopath’ and portrays its protagonist in a nuanced and multidimensional way. Here she writes about why we need to go beyond the labels and see more diverse women portrayed in the arts.
I’m not sure that I think we do need ‘evil’ women on stage per se. What does ‘evil’ mean, anyway? The opposite of good? Profoundly immoral and wicked? To create a character that is simply generically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is, surely, extremely boring. Lazy, even. What purpose would it serve? What lessons would we learn about ourselves?
Audiences are revelling in female darkness because it feels like the arts are finally trying to portray us honestly.
It feels urgent to see depictions of feminine ‘evil’ at the moment, such as Villanelle in Killing Eve, because this is an area of human behaviour that has been out of bounds to female characters on stage and screen for far too long. Audiences are revelling in female darkness because it feels like the arts are finally trying to portray us honestly. Female characters are, at long last, breaking free of their domestic bonds. We are no longer being defined by our reproductive ability and our capacity to nurture. We’re increasingly more than a supporting character; the secretary, the mistress in lingerie or the wife in the kitchen; the Madonna or the Whore. The filler. For me, it feels extremely liberating to see a character like the one in Ladykiller, to hear her say “you’re not good” and be empowered by her permission to be a bit “evil”.
I have felt oppressed by societal expectations.
That doesn’t mean I think we should all start killing people. It means that I have felt oppressed by societal expectations. This is old news now: we are passive-aggressively pressed to conform to beauty standards, gender roles, career expectations, financial ideals. It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted by my own anxiety. ‘Evil’ characters give us permission to say, “Enough!”
When we see a ‘complex’ or, worse, ‘strong’ woman at the centre of a drama, we usually know she is ‘strong’ and ‘complex’ because she has ISSUES. ALL THE ISSUES. Everything. She’s a Detective working on the biggest case of her life while battling alcoholism and supporting an anorexic, heroin-addicted daughter in a relationship with a much older man, all while divorcing her love-rat husband who has a secret other family and has taken all the money.
Women are good, bad and everything in between for a whole host of reasons.
Difficult circumstances do not make a character complex. Having to deal with loads of sh*t isn’t what makes a woman strong.
I believe that, in an effort to examine human nature, we ought to be looking at the widest possible panorama of human experience. That certainly means looking at human capacity for violence, criminality and so-called evil, just as much as striving to amplify goodness, righteousness, love, empathy. When Shakespeare’s female tyrants behave evilly, they do so with no seeming justification. They are just ‘evil’. But, just like men, women are good, bad and everything in between for a whole host of reasons and justifications. I believe that we owe it to audiences to tell human stories. To do that, we need to embrace the full spectrum of human behaviour. And I hardly need point out, women can behave just as abhorrently and bafflingly as men, just as men can also be domestic, parental, empathetic – all the staple characteristics that are usually endowed to female characters on stage.
‘Ladykiller’ comes to the Vault Festival 27 February – 3 March 2019.