How fitting that in the week after Vicky Featherstone claims "We haven’t seen a female Hamlet. People haven’t written those plays yet. And when they do write them... people don’t receive the play very positively"1, Mike Bartlett's Doctor Foster came to a spectacular head, with 7.8 million viewers. I know it's not strictly a piece of theatre but with Bartlett's firm background in playwriting, I still feel it is appropriate still to apply Featherstone's comments.
If you haven't watched the drama yet, I suggest you do so. Suranne Jones is perfect casting for Bartlett's lead - whom has repeatedly been described as a cliched "woman scorned"2, which I feel is rather reductive considering Doctor Foster is a woman who refuses to be the victim. Bartlett wrote her flaws perfectly, plentiful but not stereotypical. As she stated herself, “Bitch is right. I’m a wolf tonight”3. Even in insult, she would not be reduced to a stereotype which is used to demean women with opinions - nor would she even allow it to happen to other women. When her son calls his father's young mistress a slut, Doctor Foster tells him never to use that word. Even the mistress herself, when confronted by the son, replies "women can have as much sex as they like...just as much as men"4. Flawed females, but not accepting the usual degrading remarks of men. However, what interested me the most was considering the critical reception of this flawed female lead narrative. Featherstone stated that "we don’t know whether we’re very good yet at watching a female narrative, especially with a flawed character"5, but yet as stated earlier, mass majority made it clear they were willing to try.
Now to judge the critical reception.
Many of the newspapers reduced Suranne Jone's characterisation to that of 'psycho' - not the complex, layered, emotional performance she gave, nor the clever manipulation and cruelty she suffered and created. Even newspapers that I usually value the opinion of considered her actions as "dafter and dafter"6 and "increasingly demented"7, with many references to Gone Girl, in which the lead female is a murderous psychopath. Veins of insanity were shown, with references to violent behaviour shown with a lingering shot of her fingernail embedded bloodily into her hand, her numbness physically residing. Her manipulation of her husband to believe she had killed her son also shocked many, however her reasoning being that she wanted him to suffer the pain she had felt, in losing the one that she loved, seemed far more complex to me than just 'daft'.
Other newspapers and online tweets criticised that Gemma Foster didn't murder her husband, who was allowed to go off "sailing into the sunset"8 scot-free with his young lover. She was seen as letting him off lightly, an anti-climatic happy ending, "a disappointing let off and a cop-out"9, the stereotypical weak wife. However, much earlier in the episode she had asserted what she wanted was for her husband to "Leave me and Tom alone, in our house. Go away, start again somewhere else"10. The ending in which she controls her rage enough to not to fall victim to his attempts to win his son over, and she keeps her house, her job, and her son, therefore make no sense to me as a weak ending for her.
And also, the ending of the series, which was interpretted by some as just "random CPR"11 displayed this perfectly for me - as her former husband drives off past her and her son, she is rushed into performing CPR for a man on the street. We are reminded as an audience that she is not just a ex-wife or a mother. She is a Doctor, "strong and useful"12. She has purpose and worth outside her marriage. She is a woman with intent and courage, the ability to heal after being forced into a lifestyle she didn't choose, and refuse her victimhood with pride.
So to return to Featherstones comments, do I believe audiences are uncomfortable with female-lead narratives? Personally, no. I have seen many fantastic plays with a female leads, that have been celebrated by many, and hope to continue this with Penelope Skinner's Linda at the Royal Court. Do I believe however critics still struggle to critically evaluate unlikeable women? Some return to age-old stereotypes that undermine all the layers to the character, yes. Others did not undermine her, but found the ending to suggest "if a strong woman wants to earn our sympathy, she cannot enjoy power, or irresponsible sex, without paying for her ambition in blood, victimhood and humiliation"13 - which I completely disagreed with. Doctor Foster does not want Suranne Jones to 'earn our sympathy' in the first place, in claiming so we are going back to the typical "Poor Lamb"14 pitance that she deserately avoided. Paid for in blood? Having her husband smash her head into a glass door is not her comeuppence for strong will - it is her husband's frustrated response to her cruel actions, which she then manipulates to sway her child's affections. And I certainly did not see a humiliated woman swanning out of the dining room, I saw a wolf. If we cannot change the standards by which we view female characters, how can we even recognise the female Hamlet when we are given one.
3 Doctor Foster, Ep 5, BBC One
4 Doctor Foster, Ep 5, BBC One
10 Doctor Foster, Ep 5, BBC One