Performing the Fantastic in Contemporary Culture

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventConference participation


Secret Histories: The Fantastic and the Counterfactual in Alistair McDowall’s The Glow (2022) and Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Very Dark Matter (2018).

Two recent plays produced in London have offered different takes on how fantasy might interact with theatrical representations of history. Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Very Dark Matter, which premiered at the Bridge Theatre in 2018, begins with Marjory, described by the play’s Narrator as ‘a Congolese pygmy, imprisoned for three years in a three-foot by three-foot mahogany box, with just some paper and a pencil for company’ (p.4). Her jailer turns out to be Hans Christian Andersen; Marjorie’s sister, Ogechi, is imprisoned in the same manner by Charles Dickens. The two sisters write the stories for which both men are famous. Alistair McDowall’s The Glow was ‘the best piece of new writing on the London stage today’ according to critic Aleks Sierz when it was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 2022. The play features the mysterious figure of ‘The Woman in Time’. As Sierz explains: ‘As the play time shifts from one historical era to another, and back again, with wild leaps into the lower paleolithic age, Roman times, 343AD, and timeless space, the Woman becomes a metaphor for loss and loneliness […] a mythical wanderer who can terrify or inspire.’

As a specialist in contemporary history plays, I am particularly interested in how these plays embed their action in cultural, political, and imperial history in order to present alternate worlds and causalities. Both these (male) playwrights configure women as time-travelers, as transcendent beings, and use them to ruminate on loss and the desire of historical closure. Drawing on the critical work of Lucy Armitt and Catherine Gallagher, as well as the plays of Lucy Kirkwood, I examine what is at stake when we stage ‘secret histories’ or ‘fantasies of the real’, with invented trials of evidence and documentation, in contemporary theatre.
Period25 May 2023
Event typeConference
LocationCoventry, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational