It’s hard to imagine seeing Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’ without it already being a major cultural phenomenon. Back in 2015, unsuspecting audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival were completely unsuspecting when the lights went up, and now after many successful seasons around the world, a television adaptation has been hailed as a masterpiece, followed by innumerable and considerable awards, and the elevation of Waller-Bridge as one of the most talented people in the world. The story of ‘Fleabag’ has permanently entered our collective cultural consciousness. For Australian audiences, our only chance to see this incredible creation in its original form was with the touring production a few years ago, but not with Waller-Bridge in the role. Now thanks to National Theatre Live, capturing a performance in her return (and final) season in the UK, we have the chance to see the miraculous taking place for ourselves.
On one hand, the stage production offers us the chance to witness this landmark creation at its earliest stage of development, including foundational versions of many of the familiar characters and situations we’ve come to love. On the other hand though, it also offers the most undiluted portrait of Waller-Bridge at the height of her powers, both as a writer and a performer. Much of the magic of the television series is its giddy manipulation of the form. Here, with only a stool and the subtlest of sound and lighting designs, she holds complete command of the space and her audience, both in the theatre and in the cinema. In a way, it’s maybe the greatest of all the testaments to her genius.
Despite the specificity of the narrative and characters, something about watching ‘Fleabag’ always feels deeply personal. Perhaps it’s how personal it feels for Waller-Bridge - while it isn’t at all autobiographical, the work taps into both her greatest qualities as a storyteller and her greatest concerns about the representation and liberation of female characters. Fleabag unapologetically embraces herself as a sexual being and her right to be one, the theatrical version in particular utilising an honesty of language around sex we more often associate with male characters. What is revelatory about it is hearing this frank honesty through a female lens. Nothing is surprising in the literal, but more so in hearing it at all, and Waller-Bridge revels in the space the audience is forced to inhabit between laughter and danger. Where the theatrical version captures this better than any other is in the simplicity of its presentation - there are no camera tricks, no television language. It’s just a woman on a chair, and the intimacy and immediacy that comes with a live body in space only amplifies its impact. In the series, Fleabag always felt like a real person, but here (even through the lens of a filmed presentation), she feels more real than ever.
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What’s so startling about that honesty though is the way Fleabag uses it to both empower and eviscerate herself all that once. Both Fleabag and Waller-Bridge are aware of the judgements that inevitably come with a woman speaking frankly about her sexual behaviour and desire, and both respond in equally staggering ways. For Fleabag, the awareness of this judgement becomes both a weapon she can wield against us but also one she can wield against herself, often turning it on herself and using it as a way of justifying how little she thinks of herself. For Waller-Bridge, so clearly in love with her creation, that presumed judgement from the audience becomes a commentary on how we perceive and respond to women as sexual beings. She wants us to enjoy the work, but also to consider our own prejudices - where they come from, how we act upon them, and to ask why can’t we celebrate the sexual nature of women, celebrate them as creatures of desire just as deserving of seeking sexual satisfaction as a man. This awareness from both character and creator result in moments of breathtaking heartbreak, where line between comedy and tragedy has been sharpened to a fine edge, and we have to dance along its dangerous edge just as much as Fleabag herself.
This brings us to the most powerful aspect of Waller-Bridge’s creation, here reduced to its most fundamental, elemental and concentrated form - we love Fleabag because she is all of us, every one of us sitting in the dark watching her. She is all our hopes, dreams, fears and desires, regardless of our gender or race or sexuality. She says all the things we wish we could say, does all the things we wish we could, and takes on all the consequences that come with it. Rather than being a conduit for us though, she becomes a symbol for how impossible life can be, how the blows will just keep coming, and how we get up anyway, wipe the mud from our face, put on some clean knickers and just keep going.
We love Fleabag because she is all of us, every one of us sitting in the dark watching her.
As astounding as Waller-Bridge is (and at this point, we can probably all accept that the woman is a legitimate genius), credit for the success of ‘Fleabag’ must also be given to director Vicky Jones. Her direction is astounding; a crafting of Fleabag’s story through precise, breathtaking rhythms and the creation of a world around her that is beautifully subtle but electric and alive (aided by a gorgeous sound design from Isobel Waller-Bridge). You can feel her guiding hand, her careful manipulation of the best that Waller-Bridge can be, maintaining the comic tension in order to allow for moments of stillness and silence. When the production hits you right in the heart, it’s not just the writing and performance but the direction achieving that. The art of directing monologue is a tricky one, and when done right, no one will probably notice you were there. Vicky Jones’ direction of ‘Fleabag’ is amongst the best I’ve ever seen for this form of storytelling, and the phenomenal success of the work is as much a testament to her talent as it is to her collaborator.
In many ways, the problems that are inherent to filming theatre don’t apply with National Theatre Live's presentation of ‘Fleabag’. By only having a single figure to focus on, the presentation loses very little of the effect of seeing her in a theatre. In fact, we’re able to enjoy many of the micro-aspects of her performance. It’s a really beautifully executed presentation from director Tony Gretch-Smith, and benefits from considerable thought and care in how best to capture the experience.
This recent revival of ‘Fleabag’ will likely be the last time Phoebe Waller-Bridge performs her masterful creation on stage. In fact, with no prospect of a third season, we may never see her play the character again. Because of this, having the opportunity in Australia to see her groundbreaking masterpiece is one you simply cannot miss. ‘Fleabag’ has changed the cultural landscape. It’s altered the way we thinking about storytelling, the presentation and representation of women's stories, and alerted us all to how much we desperately want to hear them. What Waller-Bridge and Vicky Jones have created is one of the theatrical events of the century so far. Thank goodness for National Theatre Live for bringing it to an even wider audience.