Roseanne used to end her stand-up act this way: “People say to me, ‘You’re not very feminine.’ Well, they can suck my dick.” Phallic fun used to be the province of men—a mission broadcast by the totemic Fool in cap and bells, whose scepter is actually a penis, that emblem of transgression, the source of panic and elation. In earlier, primmer days, the great American comediennes—Fanny Brice, Judy Holiday, Lucille Ball—got away with mischief by ditzy indirection; nowadays, in our unabashed, newly liberated times that echo with the impudence of independence, when facing down the male gaze, comediennes increasingly prefer the headbutt to the velvet glove.
The latest recruit to the bumptious tribe of phallic women is Britain’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who tonight brings the curtain down on her sold-out limited engagement at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre, based on the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe one-woman show from which her now internationally famous TV series was minted.
“I wanted to see someone who was never relenting, who was furious—furious—and not even for good reason,” Waller-Bridge said about inventing Fleabag. (“Flea” also happens to be her family nickname.) The Eureka! moment—an outlandish semaphore of Waller-Bridge’s anarchic pedigree—comes at the end of Fleabag’s first-ever TV episode. As she leans back in the seat of a taxi, in the midst of an over-share with the cabdriver, Fleabag hoiks up her skirt, gropes in her underpants, and pulls out the stolen golden statuette from her hated stepmother’s studio. In her fist, she clutches the headless female torso, which looks nonetheless like, well, you know. Instinctively, unconsciously, in one startling, outrageous gesture Fleabag has goosed her audience and, at a stroke, also pronounced her priapic comic mission. She’s a louche cannon.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the public have taken to Fleabag like a bass to a top-water lure. She hasn’t just been taken up; she’s been gobbled up. The scripts of the two series will soon be published as Fleabag: The Scriptures, a wink at both the success and the reverence in which Fleabag’s screen liberties are held. In these two short seasons (12 episodes in all) the character and her creator have firmly established themselves as part of the new century’s popular cultural history, some kind of watershed of TV transgressiveness. Waller-Bridge has caught lightning in a bottle. When a comedienne hits with this kind of seismic wallop, the public reaction is both a miracle and a mystery. Why now? Why her?
The public have taken to Fleabag like a bass to a top-water lure. Waller-Bridge hasn’t just been taken up; she’s been gobbled up.
As a character, Fleabag is a compendium of concupiscence and collapse, a madcap who acts out the fierce opposing forces of her very split personality: aggressive-vulnerable, phallic-yonic, transgressive-polite, heterosexual-gay, rapacious-guilt-ridden, brave-panicked. Contradiction is visible in Waller-Bridge herself at first glance. She’s both the New Woman—chippie, sexual, independent, gutsy—and the beautiful upper-class English rose—willowy, well dressed, well spoken, and well bred. (There are baronets in Waller-Bridge’s family tree.)
Ordinarily, in this populist moment, such transparent privilege would not play well to the masses, but Waller-Bridge undermines the fortune of her face and her family by piling a mountain of loss onto her alter ego. As the audience laughs at Fleabag behaving badly, it also learns that she has lost her mother, her boyfriend, her connection to her father (he’s remarried), her best friend (a suicide for which she’s responsible), and, crucially, her sense of self-respect. “I have a horrible feeling I’m a perverted, selfish, apathetic, depraved, mannish-looking, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist,” she says, which accounts for her voracious need to be desired. Enraged, desperate, and unmoored—no wonder the character speaks to our confounded political moment: she’s completely, sensationally stuck.
“My Secret Camera Friend”
The most important character in the TV series is not Fleabag but the camera for whom she breaks the Fourth Wall to glance, wink, mug, and confide. Harpo had his horn, Groucho his cigar, Chaplin his cane to poke, prod, and take the world for a tumble. Fleabag has the camera to create mischief. Offstage, Waller-Bridge refers to it as “my secret camera friend”; earlier last month she told the American talk-show host Jimmy Fallon, “The camera was the most important relationship to me. I thought, ‘Unless I can reinvent a reason why she talks to the camera again I couldn’t justify coming back for a second season.’”
The camera’s presence is the license for Fleabag to be at liberty—its witness raises the amperage of her playfulness and outrageousness, a rambunctious, kinetic energy conspicuous by its absence from the stage version. Besides giving an audience a window into Fleabag’s unconscious, the camera gives the viewers agency; they alone see Fleabag’s true heart, not her defended one. For all Fleabag’s obsessing about sex—“I wish he’d just fuck me. All he wants to do is make love,” Fleabag says of one hapless boyfriend—intimacy is not on Fleabag’s sexual menu. She doesn’t want it, and can’t give it, except—thanks to the camera—to us viewers.
In writing a one-person show, the hardest question to ask is the first one: what brings the character on? Waller-Bridge has Fleabag run out onto an almost bare stage, evidently late and in a flop sweat about her job interview. Sitting on a crimson-cushioned chair with only three bars of neon light above her, she engages at the opening with a patronizing offstage Male Voice, who also bookends the play and who speaks from on high rather like Oz from behind his curtain. The play is set just after the riptide of the #MeToo campaign, and the lame theatrical entrance is also right out of the rebarbative #MeToo playbook. (“Fuck You”—the play’s last words—are also directed to the Male Voice.) We guess this because when Fleabag lifts up her sweater and exposes her bra—she’s hot from running, you see—the orotund Male Voice says: “That won’t get you very far now.” Of course, Fleabag, a hostile sharpshooter loudly proclaiming her innocence, takes umbrage; in the process, she also takes the evening’s first patriarchal scalp. “I’m not trying to shag you. Look at yourself,” she says.
Where the opening beats of the original TV series jump the viewer from Fleabag’s high anxiety into the high comedy of her rolling commentary at the pervy sex she’s in the midst of having, the theatrical opening jumps the viewer just into commentary. Like a brass rubbing, the stage riff goes back and forth over friend Boo, the café, Hilary the guinea pig, her parents, her sister, her body (“Do I have a massive arsehole?”). Gradually the outlines of these familiar TV tropes take on definition for the paying customers; but they’re talked out, not acted out.
“I’m not trying to shag you. Look at yourself.”
The one hilarious, un-boundaried exception is Fleabag’s inspired attempt to snap a selfie of her vagina to send to a boyfriend. (“You’ve got to do it. Can’t have them looking elsewhere … ”) Here, Waller-Bridge is finally cut loose from her stage chair, her long legs miming her bathroom struggle in a hilarious stage picture to get a “worm’s-eye view” of her sweet spot, which she describes as “a bat on its side on the floor of a hairdresser.” Otherwise, most of the time, narration puts a spoke in the fun machine. Instead of phallic fun, Waller-Bridge gives us phallic explanation:
I don’t feel alive unless I’m being fucked and I don’t feel in control unless I’m fucking, because fucking makes the world tighten around me…. I know that my body as it is now is really the only thing I have and when it gets old and un-fuckable I might as well just kill it.… Either everyone feels like this a little bit and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone. Which isn’t fucking funny.
In the published play, Waller-Bridge is quoted as saying she wrote Fleabag as “part stand-up and part drama.” That’s its problem: it delivers neither the antic immediacy of stand-up nor the tension of drama. The sold-out Wyndham’s audience, who love the character and know her high jinks by heart, don’t seem to mind. But, as a piece of writing, the play of Fleabag is to the TV version what Ping-Pong is to tennis.
In the last eloquent beat of the final TV series, Fleabag contrives to have the stolen golden sculpture still in her handbag. For a split second she clutches it to her chest, smiles at the camera, and, after a long, lingering look, signals to the camera not to follow her. She stands up from the bus stop where she’s been crying and throws the statuette into a nearby waste bin. As she walks away, Fleabag looks back over her shoulder at the camera and gives it a little wave; then she goes on her way. For Waller-Bridge, the creator of Killing Eve and a co-author of the newest James Bond, No Time to Die, the poignant moment plays both as an elegiac good-bye to her character and to the caprice of phallic fun. Waller-Bridge no longer needs to trip up a world that is now at her feet.
The theatrical production of Fleabag is now being screened by National Theatre Live.
John Lahr is a columnist for AIR MAIL