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...
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, 2011Over 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.
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.