I first heard about Women You Know through both word of mouth and social media, and I was instantly intrigued. The Instagram page @womenyouknow_sta has a bio that reads “The morning after a drunken rendezvous with an old boyfriend, a hungover woman and her friend discuss autonomy, identity, and bad sex.”. So far, so relatable, for so many. I just knew I had to go see the Edinburgh debut, housed in Teviot Underground at the University of Edinburgh. After a short train journey my friends and I made it to the venue, a stage set within the gritty basement nightclub, surrounded by a balcony. Every seat was filled and every eye was trained upon the two women seated onstage, Scarlett Tew and Maddy McCourt, whilst several male cast members hid from view next to the stage. The anticipation, from both the crew and audience, was palpable. The lights dimmed, the room went quiet, and what followed was an hour of wry, bombastic humour, sardonic wit, chagrin, and sexual frustration. The narrative was eminently relatable, a conversation between friends about the sexual and emotional expectations placed upon women by a patriarchal society. After witnessing the brilliant performance, I was immediately inspired to write this article, and discover exactly what inspired such a nuanced look into sexual autonomy and the politics that inevitably surround it.
The play is the brainchild of two second-years, Catherine Barrie, an Art History major, and Stella Jopling, who is majoring in Film and Spanish. It is a completely symbiotic effort, written by Catherine, co-directed and produced by Stella. I sat down with both of them to ask what the impetus of their joint creative vision was. The answer was one that should be extremely familiar to a St. Andrews student: a conversation on the pier about their personal experiences and tribulations. This took place all the way back in March of 2021, meaning this play was a year in the making. They began by noting down and recording conversations with friends, writing what they knew, creating a play by young women, for young women. Catherine says her inspiration stemmed from a deep frustration with the representation of women in the media, having read too many books that misunderstood and misinterpreted women because they were written by men. “Men can’t write women unless they are plot-points.”, she says, “It’s exciting to see a woman detective in literature, on stage, or on TV, until you realise that they were made to be the love interest.”. She notes that a male friend once asked her what girls talk about when they’re alone together, leading to the suspicion that perhaps he thought they “spoke fondly of our favourite colours or holding boy’s hands.”. The prevalence of female perspectives written by men has led to a lack of understanding of the important nuances present in women’s lives, confining them into a box created by the male gaze, as well as conditioning them to believe that this box is normal and realistic, rather than a perpetuated social construct.
Catherine has a notebook in which she writes down funny things people say to her, and a lot of them are unintentionally about sexual experiences. She says she looked at it one day and thought “this could write itself.”. She wanted to craft a storyline which would allow women to see their own experiences onstage, reclaiming sex for themselves and validating sex with the female gaze. She sought to situate this dialogue within the male gaze, yet underpin it with the female perspectives within. “The male gaze is acting, the female gaze is observing” she notes, quoting Margaret Atwood’s opinion that “women are voyeurs of their own bodies” and that consequently we have taught ourselves about sex and our own bodies through the male gaze. She wryly notes that the play completely fails the Bechdel test, but says that this was intentional. Although all the stories contained within the narrative are either personal or borrowed from friends, she and Stella wanted to make sure it was not a play about themselves. They restructured, adapted, merged, and fictionalised these accounts to create an intimate collage of emotion and observation. Catherine also emphasised a lot of her writing inspiration comes from her experiences as a South Asian woman, and the pervasiveness of racial typecasting and fetishising. “Asian women are feitishised for being submissive, prudish and exotic (whatever that means), and it’s important that Indian women like myself write and talk about sex. That’s why I keep jokily insisting that THIS IS A POLITICAL PLAY. Sex is always political, especially if you’re not white, especially if you are trans.”, she stated emphatically.
Touching upon the setting, I was told that it was inspired by hangovers, and the cold, interrogating sun which casts its light over you, sitting on a balcony the morning after, surrounded by friends, meditating in comfortable silence. I then asked what led them to choose Scarlett and Maddy for the lead roles. They said that they held their auditions without any prerequisite requirements, and that the girls “just felt right”, saying that the more they ran through the lines, the more they knew. “They are some of the most hilarious people I’ve ever met”, said Catherine, “Maddy mentioned that she normally gets cast as men in plays. She’s a funny and confident woman and is always cast as a man. It seems there aren’t many funny, confident women out there to cast her as. Scarlett walked into the audition by mistake but said how the script reminded her of how she and her friends talk to each other. They both just got it.”. The casting of the male characters was inspired by both Stella and Catherine thinking it would be hilarious to have a bunch of men waiting backstage for the duration of the show, only to have a line or two each, equating it to the trope of the Bond girl: do your bit and fuck off, you are only a plot point. “That being said, the guys in the cast are so fantastic. They get the concept and are here for it. They play their characters in a self-aware but perfectly oblivious way. It’s really impressive how clever they are with their lines. The play wouldn’t be what it is without them.”
The play has already completely sold out its two nights in St. Andrews and will be shown at the Edinburgh Fringe later this year. Where it will go from there, who can tell, but having seen the creative passion of the dynamic duo responsible, as well as the cast, I have no doubt both the play, and all their endeavours to follow, will continue to amaze.