Laughing and Crying: Let’s Talk About Phoebe Waller-Bridge
So much of Phoebe Waller-Bridge is completely typical of the British acting culture. She’s an upper-middle class white English woman with impeccable family credentials (including Baronets and Tory MPs), a private school education and RADA training. She’s acted on the West End and done those sturdy period dramas us Brits are so beloved for. When British media makes a point of celebrating specific talents who have made it big, they usually focus on the men, but Waller-Bridge is the consummate British actress they love to write home about. Well, in theory. As an abstract concept, the parts are all there, but what made Waller-Bridge so striking amid a sea of bright young things and sparkling ingenues was the difficult nature of the work she produced. She didn’t find the work she wanted to be in, and nobody would hire her, so she made it herself. What she made - the award-winning comedy Fleabag - was a tragically hilarious ‘fuck you’ to the entire concept of the difficult woman.
In an interview with British Vogue, Waller-Bridge admitted that she thought her privileged upbringing would help bolster her career, saying she assumed ‘I would be fine because being posh with curly hair basically equals a Shakespearean career’. In reality, she didn’t work for two years after graduating from RADA and fell into a slump. Like many London based stars, she got her start on the stage, but not by relying on the work of others. Collaborating with artistic director Vicky Jones, Waller-Bridge started DryWrite, a theatre company dedicated to staging short plays by new writers. The film and TV work slowly rolled in, but the stage remained the great focus. There, Waller-Bridge could command some level of creative control. She admitted to Vogue that, while looking for comedic roles, the pickings for women were slim: You could either be ‘girl the main guy wants to fuck, or girl the main guy totally does not want to fuck.’
Fleabag was what started it all. The story of the eponymous 20-something woman trying to navigate her increasingly crumbling life started out as a ten minute short for DryWrite, created after another writer dropped out at the last minute. That short became an hour long one-woman show, which DryWrite took to the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival (partly funded by Kickstarter). The Fringe is an astounding experience, whether you’re a visitor or an artist or a critic or a beleaguered Edinburgh resident who just wants all these damn tourists to get out of your goddamned way. It’s also a microcosm of the nightmare that is trying to make it in the British cultural scene. Very few shows out of the thousands that perform during the month of August manage to break even. You fight for poster space, for flyer distribution, for a sliver of the audiences’ increasingly fractured attention, and then you need to convince them to pay £10 to spend an hour in a dingy room with no air conditioning watching someone they’ve never heard of. Even big names don’t guarantee sales at the Fringe, so how do you pull it off when you’re an unknown?
Sometimes, pure talent does shine through. Fleabag was beloved by the critics and became the show everyone was talking about. I was working as a theatre critic at the Fringe that Summer and forever regretted not getting to review the show myself. This was the show that caught fire and sparked enthused conversation throughout the festival. Even people who didn’t like it that much couldn’t keep quiet about it. The Fringe success of Fleabag got her name out there. It helped her get cast in the second season of the wildly popular ITV crime drama Broadchurch; it got Channel 4 to move forward with Crashing, a dark comedy series she wrote and starred in; and it got the BBC to commission a pilot of the stage show.
By the time Fleabag made its way to BBC 3, the channel had become a digital only network due to budget cuts. Oddly, that made the network more interesting with their programming choices. I’m not sure, had the channel still been available through traditional means in 2016, that they would have brought Fleabag to air. Sure, BBC 3 was home to esoteric comedies like The Mighty Boosh, but it was also the channel that kept the agonizingly terrible lad-com Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps on air long after it should have been put out of its misery. As obvious as the genius of Fleabag was, it was tough to categorize, and that would have made it a hard sell to the Beeb. The sheer nerve of the show is what makes it an electrifying experience to watch.
Fleabag is heart-breaking raunch by way of the theatrical monologue. Even with other actors surrounding her - including the near-iconic Olivia Colman - this is still Waller-Bridge’s one-woman show. The eponymous lead is the kind of anti-hero that would have the acclaim of world-changing TV if it were played by a man. As a profane, fragile and candidly broken woman using sex as an emotional release from her pain, Waller-Bridge is abrasive in ways mainstream TV still has trouble finding space for when it comes to women in comedy. She crosses the lines in ways that the most self-obsessed shock-jocks would never think to try, like the moment where her character tries to have a covert wank to news coverage of Barack Obama while her boyfriend is sleeping next to her. Fleabag revels in sex and fights back against sexist stereotyping but still finds no true solace in her facade of liberation. Throughout the six episode first season, she is wildly funny, but the more she turns to the audience and asks them to laugh at her misfortunes, the more unbearably tragic it becomes. The reliability of her point-of-view comes into question, but by the time the truth is revealed, the pain is impossible to conceal, both for Fleabag and the audience.
Throughout it all, Fleabag is oddly likeable. She’s frequently callous and the consequences of her mistakes ring loudly throughout the series, yet she’s never someone you want to hate. That would be the easy way out. You never root for Fleabag, although it’s hard to say that you want her to fail. She just is, and there’s startling honesty in how Waller-Bridge writes and plays that part. Women frequently get ‘ugly’ for comedy, but they’re rarely this depressing. That’s a compliment, I swear.
Fleabag had the potential to be a lightning in a bottle moment for Waller-Bridge: The kind of success one simply can’t replicate because the stars were aligned just so in that moment. Every creator fears the sophomore slump, and once your name is out there, there’s no guarantee that the big bosses making the creative decisions will know how to use you properly. How do you move on as a creator and actor when your first flush of fame is not only so big - at least, in the scale of indie comedy TV - but tied directly to your own creation? For Waller-Bridge, the next step forward was one that allowed her to simultaneously take a step back and away from the spotlight.
I wish I could talk more about Killing Eve, but alas, it hasn’t screened in the UK yet. She did not write every episode, but the show is clearly her baby in every way, even as a drama that’s stylistically seemingly the polar opposite of Fleabag. Based on a series of novellas, Killing Eve is a thrilling spy drama about a sociopathic assassin and a talented MI5 officer who become mutually obsessed with one another. As noted by the critics, that premise could so easily have slid into male fantasy or Bond porn parody. Waller-Bridge and her actresses, Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, have been commended for the twist they’ve put on the material.
The female gaze isn’t always about just telling stories from women’s points-of-view (or leering over men): Waller-Bridge has a keen awareness of how that approach can mean more focus on the ways women struggle to be listened to in their lives. Despite being based on source material written by a man, the show has been commended for its distinctly female nature - parts written for men were changed to accommodate women; the relationships of power between women are notably different than those between men; sexual tension between Eve and Villanelle is blatant but there isn’t a skimpy latex catsuit in sight. These women are not disposable. Waller-Bridge has made sure of that.
Coming soon, Waller-Bridge will star in Solo: A Star Wars Story as L3-37, the droid companion of Lando. She’ll be hidden entirely under motion-capture, similar to Alan Tudyk and Lupita Nyong’o, but that may be the best option for her. I’m usually pretty suspect about franchises like this concealing their talented women and people of colour under impossible layers of CGI and make-up. Here, it could give Waller-Bridge the joy of a blockbuster experience and none of the industry or fan pressure (remember, for a long time, she was the favourite to replace Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who). She won’t be defined by Star Wars in the way that Alden Ehrenreich could become. If Fleabag put her words and her face front and centre, while Killing Eve let the words do all the work, playing L3-37 inhabits an interesting space on that spectrum. The work is evident but it’s not contingent on her looks or industry-mandated femininity. Plus she gets to flirt with Donald Glover for a couple of hours, so she clearly wins.
Season 2 of Fleabag is happening, and expectations are high. Now, there’s no way Fleabag can pretend that everything is fine. The turmoil of her rage can’t be hidden. Tapping into that anguish as a writer won’t be easy, especially since Waller-Bridge herself has a pretty sweet life right now, from being a BAFTA winner to dating Martin McDonagh. Still, being happy doesn’t make one any less difficult, and therein lies the fun part.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)
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