Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 33: Lesley Bruce’s Keyboard Skills (1993)
The joy of second hand bookshops is to find a book of plays that you’ve not come across before for a relatively low price. Keyboard Skills is one of four plays by female playwrights in a collection called Bush Theatre Plays. It’s a play about a scandal involving a politician’s private life, and gender roles.
Late at night in central London a woman in her forties, Caroline, is in her bedroom waiting for her MP husband, Bernard, to return home. The wardrobe doors fly open and out pops Caroline’s former teacher Miss Gainsborough of Gainsborough’s school for secretarial training sat at her teaching desk. She appears throughout the first act each time prescribing the dos and don’ts of typing, answering the phone, and taking minutes. Her unique entrance of bursting from the wardrobe keeps the play’s setting focused on the bedroom, with Miss Gainsborough’s world appearing in Caroline’s memory. We also see how Bernard and Caroline first met with her being his secretary twenty years previously. Now, he’s further up the cursus honorum and she is no longer his PA but instead playing the role of the politician’s dutiful wife. What follows, when he eventually returns home, is a series of scenes in which Bernard lies, squirms and boasts his way through trying to explain to Caro (as he calls her) about a potentially cataclysmic turn in his career. Involving an affair with a secretary, a mislaid briefcase, an IRA bomb, a pub in Bromley, and an opportunistic junior minister, Bruce’s dialogue persuasively evokes how this couple operates. From Bernard’s sense of self-regard to Caroline’s smart awareness of his fables, the play is evocative, detailed and offers two meaty roles for actors.
There are some interesting thoughts about belonging which seems to be a token of 90s’ new writing, but much of the play is about roleplaying and the inherent sexism in the depleting world of secretarial training in which Caroline trained. The role of the secretary, apparently, is to be indispensable, dedicated, creative, and to have an insinuation of power but to be efficient and deferential, ultimately submissive. Perhaps, Bruce suggests, that is also Bernard’s idea of a wife. In one captivating moment, when Caroline is faced with playing the role of the humiliated but supportive politician’s wife, she rips clothes out of the (previously inhabited) wardrobe: ‘what would you like me to wear?... [Something] beautiful without being intimidating. Feminine without being too blatantly sexy. Sexy without being tarty. Intelligent without being threatening’. And so she goes on, strewing clothes about as much as the adjectives that are supposed to describe the perfect woman in Bernard’s eyes. As the play draws to a close, Bernard finally accepts the idea of leaving politics and they decide to stick together, but as the lights go down Bernard is heard grasping at straws to try to save his chance of being in the cabinet. Some things in politics, Bruce suggests, never change.