Photograph taken mid-performance. The actresses stand in a line, with their right arms raised.

In conversation with Krupa Pattani and Chloe Wade

Content warning: sexual assault

Touring the UK from January to March, Chloe Wade’s play As SHE Likes It came to Oxford’s Old Fire Station on 25th February. As Krupa Pattani puts it (Mr Bates vs the Post Office, Ali & Ava), “the theatre industry hasn’t had its Me Too movement yet, so this play is definitely a healthy provocation for that”.

As SHE Likes It is set in 1937 and takes its audience on a journey of Old Hollywood through the eyes of the archetypes of that era, with Krupa Pattani playing the ‘Damsel in Distress’ and Chloe Wade as the ‘Girl Next Door’. Wade describes how she was inspired by the story of Patricia Douglas, who pioneered the Me Too movement some ninety years ago – Douglas was lured to a casting call which turned out to be a party, and was subsequently raped. Her story had been buried for almost a century and systems set against her, but Wade gives a voice to Patricia and the thousands of other women like her in this play. The pertinence of As SHE Likes It lies in the fact that the industry’s history of sexism and exploitation is still a problem, and it does not take long to think of several examples of high profile scandals in the entertainment industry.

During the interview, Wade highlighted that social media has now allowed women to share their stories with less taboo. However, there is still lots of work to be done to eliminate sexism in the industry as women need to be able talk about their experiences openly – Wade comments: “the first two plays that I was aware of around the Me Too movement were by Berkoff and Mamet, who are both white men. It shouldn’t be their perspective that speaks on this.”

Wade describes the play as a “black comedy with elements of cabaret and verbatim” while remaining a “powerful, thought-provoking and empowering piece”. When asked if it was difficult to balance comedy with the seriousness of the play’s subject matter, Wade affirmed that there is a “fine balance” to find when weaving humour into serious issues: “some of the best plays I’ve seen use dark comedy – Dust by Milly Thomas, which I saw at Soho Theatre, was about suicide, but it was so funny and powerful. Humour is an underrated tool when talking about something so serious, because you get such a strong reaction from the audience.” 

Similarly, when talking about the intimacy that theatre provides, Pattani agreed that it is a medium like no other in terms of connecting with an audience: “I feel so lucky, because I’ve had an opportunity to talk directly to the audience and to have a connection with the audience. It’s nice to see people’s reactions and people seem to really connect to it. You can’t escape when you’re there in person.”

I brought up Suzie Miller’s play Prima Facie, starring Jodie Comer, as an example of how theatre has the unique ability to give a voice to those who have previously been silenced by deeply connecting with the audience on an emotional level – for Pattani, As SHE Likes It is “like a love letter to the sisterhood”. 

Pattani also described how her own attitudes have shifted through being part of the play, as she hadn’t realised how much she had internalised the tropes in the media that normalise sexism and promote patriarchal standards. She spoke about how there is a filter that has started to fade away for her and she hopes that the play’s affirmation of women’s struggles helps the audience’s interpretation of the world – if the audience is to take away one thing from As SHE Likes It, it would be to “call out sexism for what it is.”

Although the play focuses on the female struggle, Pattani also stressed that the theme of exploitation in all forms is central to the message of As SHE Likes It. It is a play that demonstrates the need for allyship, understanding and sympathy – for this reason, Wade describes the play as a “call to arms for empowerment.”

The sense of universal struggle in the play is heightened by the fact that the female ensemble are not given names, referred to simply as ‘Leading Lady’, ‘Damsel in Distress’, ‘Girl Next Door’, ‘Screwball Comedy Queen’ and ‘Sex Symbol’. Wade creates room for the audience to relate to the characters, as well as demonstrating how these problems continue to persist today.

I also asked Pattani about Mr Bates vs the Post Office, the highly influential ITV drama that has put pressure on the government, in which she played Saman Kaur, one of hundreds of sub-postmasters accused of stealing from the Post Office due to the faulty Horizon computer system. When asked whether she has made a conscious decision to take such socially relevant roles or whether this has happened by chance, Pattani referenced Emma Stone: “the right roles come to you at the right time”, and she was drawn to these roles. 

“Something inside of me resonated strongly with Mr Bates vs the Post Office, ” she elaborated. “I wanted to shine a light on somebody who didn’t have an opportunity to share their injustice.”

When asked whether she had anticipated the success of Mr Bates vs the Post Office, Pattani responded that she “had no idea that it would be so impactful. The public has taken it as their own story.” As SHE Likes It is an important vehicle of empowerment – as Wade’s writing debut, it is certainly exciting to see how this play develops. Given the importance of her work, I asked Wade whether TV, film and theatre should necessarily have a didactic function or carry some sort of message. For Wade, “even if it is just purely to entertain, I think that has so much power and so much worth in society, whether it’s to laugh, to cry or to think differently about something, that is such a worthwhile thing that our industry does.”

Image Credit: Nicola Osrin