A young director's examination how gender is performed on stage especially within the works of William Shakespeare

25 June 2012

Catalysts and kick starts

Feminism has always been of interest to me ever since studying the suffragettes in Year 9. At school my interest in women's emancipation and my final big history A Level project on why Elizabeth I was quite right to have never married meant that I was often cast as 'The Feminist' amongst my peers. However, it wasn't until university that I began to understand the word and to identify really and truly as a feminist. Led by a particularly inspiring lecturer my academic work in my BA Study of Religions took a very gendered approach. Wherever possible I would write essays on gender and women, and outside the classroom I became involved in various women's rights campaigns, put on events about feminism, led the university's branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and at the end of my second year became co-Women's Officer for the Student's Union. It looked like I was destined for a life in academia and that seemed just fine, mainly because I wasn't sure what else I could or would do. The theatre, whilst having played a significant role in my life as a child and young teen, was a fun, often far too expensive past time, little more.

After second year exams and before leaving London for the summer, my friends and I had a few sunny weeks of freedom and decided that an injection of culture was needed if our brains were to keep ticking over until the commencement of our final year in September. Standing tickets at The Globe are a student-friendly fiver so we booked for As You Like It (a play I sort of knew and remembered finding very funny when I was a child) and spent the entire journey to the South Bank drawing complex diagrams of all the relationships in the play.

The course of true love never did run smooth...

The atmosphere of being a groundling at The Globe makes the spine tingle. With the stage jutting out into an audience who crowds in on three sides, and people leaning against the stage, parking drinks and coats around the edge, one really gets involved in the action and the best players exploit the proximity of audience and story to great effect. We piled in to the packed auditorium and the play began.

Now, while standing is a fantastic experience, unless one leans on the stage or rests on the boards at the back, it can be hard to concentrate as one must frequently do a sly jig in order to keep circulation going. So at about half an hour in and just getting used to standing and watching, I realised that I hadn’t to my knowledge seen Jaques, the cynical character who delivers the (in)famous 'Seven Ages of Man' speech. I started to look around and was struck when someone in a skirt was referred to as ‘Madame Jaques’. Madame Jaques? Jaques is being played by a woman? My interest was immediately heightened. Gender-bending was what I studied, what I wrote about and read about at uni, but seeing Emma Pallant pull off a brilliant performance as Madame Jaques (and also Phebe) was an out and out revelation to me.

Emma Pallant, 2011

Over the next few weeks I started to read Shakespeare’s plays as though my life depended on it. Suddenly there was so much there that I knew about but had never really noticed: Lady Macbeth’s great ‘unsex me here’ soliloquy and all the sexual politics between her and her husband; the possibility of doubling up Cordelia and The Fool in King Lear; and the gender-bending that runs rife throughout the comedies. It was like a light had been switched on.

Very soon I was back at The Globe, this time for Much Ado About Nothing. The only version of this I knew was a BBC adaptation with Sarah Parish and Damien Lewis that my sister and I used to watch constantly as teenagers. It didn’t occur to me to read the play beforehand as I was confident that I was pretty au fait with the story. Boy oh boy was I in for a shock! Whilst I knew the plot, nothing could have prepared me for how I would be swept away by Shakespeare's language in all its glory, being presented in as close to the original setting as we have. The character of Beatrice is now one of my favourite characters in English literature, so shaken and stirred was I by her story. When she cried ‘O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place’ I couldn’t help but cheer and raise a fist. I'm with ya Bea!! I later read an interview with the actress who had played Beatrice so brilliantly, Eve Best, where she talked about how she would love to play Macbeth. I was ecstatic. Other people are thinking about this gender-bending stuff too? Hooray!

Ever since last June I have thrown myself head first into the world of the theatre, Shakespeare, and into exploring how – with the lenses of gender – our greatest stories might be reimagined and replayed, if for not other reason than to give women a crack at the incredible wealth of parts which, until recently, were only available to men. Over the next year I hope to explore this more, both in an academic setting and through contemporary theatre praxis. I feel that there is increasingly a move towards looking at how women and men can take on and interpret one another’s roles and stories on stage, and I am excited to be part of that growing exploration.

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