A top playwright

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Caryl Churchill is one of the most important playwrights of modern times, writes Jennifer Wilkinson

From women's oppression to stock market greed, Caryl Churchill frequently uses theatre to intervene in the political arena. Her play Seven Jewish Children was a powerful response to Israel's massacre of people in Gaza in early 2009. A self-described "political event" in ten minutes, she punctures the Zionist narrative of self defence and dramatically heightens the viewer's moral outrage at the continuing oppression of the Palestinians. Churchill has made it clear that the play may be performed by anyone for free, as long as a collection is taken for the people of Gaza.

Churchill's play Top Girls, written in the early 1980s, is a condemnation of Thatcher's Britain that draws out questions about feminism and class. Caryl Churchill may not be quite as well known as someone like Harold Pinter - but she should be. Top Girls is a perfect example why.

Marlene is the protagonist. Recently promoted to senior management, she poses questions still relevant today: does the fact that some women have broken through the glass ceiling mean women have achieved liberation? Without socialised childcare can all women really make it if they try? Do we now live in a classless society? The play decisively answers "no". That the current London revival still resonates in 2011 underscores Churchill's main point - that unless we change the system that underpins women's oppression, liberation will remain a dream.

The play opens with a dinner party to celebrate Marlene's promotion. The guests include Dull Gret, a character from a painting by Bruegel, Pope Joan, a woman who possibly held the papacy in the 9th century, Griselda, a character from Chaucer, Lady Nijo, a 13th century Japanese concubine and Isabella Bird, a Victorian travel writer. All the guests are powerful or significant women from different historical periods. Their stories reveal a shared experience of women's oppression.

This opening scene has often been taken as a critique of the individualistic identity politics of the American women's liberation movement, in contrast to the more class-based politics of the British movement. None of the guests really listen to each other. Unusually for drama, the dialogue continuously overlaps. Although the question of class might not smack you in the face in the opening scene, Churchill ensures it still niggles, quite literally in the background. There is in fact another person present on stage throughout the first act - the woman who is waiting at the table does not utter a single word. Amid the tales of rape, lost lovers and lost children, Dull Gret - who is depicted leading an army into hell in Bruegel's painting - punctuates the scene with raw anger: "I'd had enough, I was mad, I hate the bastards. I come out my front door that morning and shout till my neighbours come out and I said, 'Come on, we're going where the evil come from and pay the bastards out'."

The second act introduces us to a range of women who, in Thatcher's Britain, still face oppression. We witness three vignettes of women being interviewed for jobs. They are forced to conceal marriages, give up dreams of promotion and toughen up to compete. Finally high-flying Marlene is shown to have a neglected daughter, Angie, who according to Marlene is "not going to make it".

Yet far from reinforcing the ideas of bourgeois feminism that women throughout history share a common oppression and should therefore unite as women to challenge it - Churchill smashes this argument aside to assert that the fundamental divide is not based on gender, but on class.

In the final act the play decisively reorientates on class conflict. Going back a year in time, promotion-hungry Marlene returns home to visit her sister Joyce who holds down four cleaning jobs to support the daughter who Marlene gave up. In a fractious argument Marlene promotes Thatcher's neoliberal dream and attacks her father for being a violent, oppressive drunk. Joyce, echoing Alexandra Kollontai's famous statement ("For the majority of women of the proletariat, equal rights with men would mean only an equal share in inequality"), argues that her mother's life was not bad because she was a women but because they lived in poverty.

The play ends with the spotlight firmly on the fightback against the Tories, with a damning critique of the policies that created a lost generation of unemployed and uneducated young people. "It's us versus them, and you're them," is one of the last things Joyce says to Marlene. Marlene and Joyce diverge on class - but the final word of the play is left to Angie: "Frightening". It is clear which side Churchill is on.

From plays about stock market crashes (Serious Money) to the English Civil War (Light Shining in Buckinghamshire), Caryl Churchill has made her name by writing about the biggest political issues. Yet she manages to do this with complex characters, a precise attention to language and an ever-evolving style. This new production of Top Girls is a great introduction to a great playwright.

Top Girls is at Trafalgar Studios, London, until 29 October