As Shakespeare's theatre opens its doors today for the first time to a play by a female writer, Rachel Shields reports on a wider theatrical revolution
They aren't so much smashing through the glass ceiling as sweeping aside layers of dusty parchment; but it is progress. As the first play penned by a woman opens at Shakespeare's Globe today - breaking a 411-year tradition - top theatre directors report a surge in prominent female playwrights, with a wave of talented women coming to the fore in Britain's male-dominated theatres.
Nell Leyshon will make history at the Globe in central London with her new play Bedlam, which chronicles the goings on at London's notorious Bethlem psychiatric hospital in the 18th century. Following the story of a young country girl admitted to the asylum, the dark comedy looks at the terrible treatments administered to unfortunate inhabitants, and the gin craze that was sweeping London.
That the 48-year-old Leyshon, who is also a successful radio playwright and novelist, has cracked the Globe is seen as a symbolic breakthrough for women theatre writers.
"The Globe is the home of Shakespeare and at the heart of our theatre culture, which excluded women for such a long time, so it is particularly poignant," said Sue Parrish, artistic director of the feminist theatre company Sphinx.
Shakespeare both wrote for and was a shareholder in the first Globe, which opened in 1599 but burnt down in 1613. The latest incarnation opened in 1997 about 200 metres from the site of the original theatre.
Leyshon is just one of the female playwrights coming to the fore; others include Lucy Prebble, author of the phenomenally successful Enron; Polly Stenham, the precocious author of That Face; Moira Buffini, whose Welcome to Thebes ran at the National's Olivier this summer; and the prolific Lucy Kirkwood.
"They say you have to act like a man to succeed, and you do have to project confidence," said Leyshon. "We women do have a lot to learn, especially when it comes to expressing self-doubt. Playwriting is quite gladiatorial. The success or failure is public, and you can't turn away from that."
She also believes that women are benefiting from the "snowball" effect, and are being spurred on by each other's success: "When you have women who do it, you get a build-up of self-belief. …