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From beginning life as a ten-minute stand up comedy sketch, writer and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag has been adapted into an award-winning stage show and a critically acclaimed television series. KYD’s Alice Cottrell recently spoke with Maddie Rice, who is performing the title role in Fleabag’s Australian tour.

KYD: For anyone who hasn’t yet been introduced to Fleabag, how would you describe the stage show in a few sentences?

Maddie Rice: Fleabag is a confessional by a young woman living in a big city. She talks about life, sex and about really awful secrets that you would only tell your best friends. She uses humour to cope with a tragedy that she’s going through.

The stage show has been incredibly well reviewed and won a stack of awards. Anyone who recommends the TV show seems to rave about it. What is it about the character you think resonates with people?

I think the main thing is that she’s a real woman. She’s somebody that you recognise, with all the flaws that a normal human being has. I think we’re so used to watching female characters, on television and on stage, that are presented from the male gaze and are only really interesting because of their relationship to the man they’re in the show with. Whereas Fleabag is a show purely about this one woman. It deals with loneliness and isolation in a big city and with a female relationship to sex. And we need to have that [representation] because lots of us recognise the experience.

We’re so used to watching female characters…that are presented from the male gaze and are only really interesting because of their relationship [to a man].

I’ve sometimes seen Fleabag described as an ‘unlikeable’ character, which seems to be a descriptor only used for female characters. What is it you think some people find confronting about the character?

I think it’s because Fleabag goes against all old-fashioned views about how a woman should behave. She’s not shy about being really honest about sex, about how she feels about people, and she tells us a lot about things she does that are not socially acceptable. I think sometimes people’s review of that is that she’s not very likeable but actually, she’s just human. It’s important that we see those kind of characters. There’s no-one in life who doesn’t make mistakes or say shocking things to their best mates.

And it’s a very personal window into who she is.

Oh yeah, it really feels like you’re having a conversation with someone you know really well. Because she tells you the sort of things that you wouldn’t say to a stranger.

Maddie Rice in Fleabag. Image: Richard Davenport.

How does that feel with a live audience? Because in the stage show it’s just you on stage speaking directly to the audience – that must create quite an intimate atmosphere.

It does feel very intimate. It’s really revealing and I love doing it because it’s almost like the audience is the other character. It’s a conversation. Obviously the audience don’t have many lines [laughs] but it really feels like you’re communicating. And there are certain lines that I’ll say and I’ll hear one woman laughing from the corner and I think ‘You know! You’ve done that! You share that with me!’

There are certain lines that I’ll say and I’ll hear one woman laughing from the corner and I think ‘You know! You’ve done that! You share that with me!’

One of the things that is shocking for some people is the candour with which Fleabag talks about her various sexual conquests. She’s very upfront about what it is she wants and she has a lot of sex. But often the sex isn’t very sexy: it can be cringe-inducing or awkward or disappointing. She seems to enjoy pursuing sex more than the sex itself. What’s your view on that – do you think she’s a sex positive character?

That’s a really interesting question. I think there are two sides to her. First of all – what Phoebe Waller-Bridge is doing, which I think is really important, is pushing the character into what people think of as a male role. Somebody who is quite powerful when it comes to sex and not the yielding, shy [female] character that we’re more used to seeing. I think that’s very feminist and it means that [people in the audience] have to realise that not everybody behaves in the old-fashioned way we expect of girls. At the same time, this character is dealing with tragedy and she does tend to use sex as a tool [for power], a distraction and a coping mechanism. Her attitude to sex can be quite cold. Like you said, it’s just a chase. So her relationship to sex is not always positive but the play is showing that, and that’s a positive thing.

I agree, even if the sex isn’t positive her agency within the social interactions is because she does what she wants. Even if what she wants is not the best!

Definitely. And I also think the show is showing what happens if we get pushed into being in a yielding position and going along with anything. We can end up there and be unhappy and not discover our sexualities or we can react in the way Fleabag does, which isn’t always a good thing either. So we need to break the boundaries and talk more about sex and sexuality in women. In that respect I think it’s positive to start that conversation.

We need to break the boundaries and talk more about sex and sexuality in women.

I think when people hear the pitch of Fleabag – a single, metropolitan woman navigating her way through modern life – there’s an expectation of a similar narrative to Girls or Bridget Jones. But it’s actually a much darker story than that. By the end it’s a very painful story about trauma, loss and grief. How do audiences react to that upending of the traditional rom-com?

I think that’s why Fleabag is so popular. Because there’s no sheen, no American shine on it. There isn’t a lot of hope. It’s showing what grief can do to someone, especially when they’re isolated and lonely and don’t have anybody to talk to. You watch someone completely unravel and by the end there’s no relief. There’s laughter throughout the play but at the end Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] doesn’t really give you a way out. You have to watch what happens to someone when they lose people they love, when they lose the person they talk to about everything. Sometimes you can watch something that deals with tragedy and at the end they just let you off the hook. Phoebe is really good at not doing that, and you leave the show with something greater.

Fleabag is at Adelaide Fringe from 27 February to 18 March and at Melbourne International Comedy Festival from 28 March to 22 April.