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

30 August 2012

'You that way: we this way...'

I have just returned from a summer in mid-Wales working with a group for whom Shakespeare is the beating heart of all they do. Putting on shows, education, inspiration – the source and well-spring of it all is the Bard's plays and sonnets. In so many ways it has been a life-changing experience, one that I am still processing and mulling over.

Of the many things I got involved with during my time was reorganising the library, as previously mentioned. Eventually the category 'women' was ditched and the books placed (more appropriately in the eyes of myself and my glamourous assistant!) under the headings 'Shakespeare critique', 'the life of Shakespeare', 'Jacobean theatre' amongst other. The women who are writing and being written about are now no longer niche, but integral.

One of the most serendipitous happenings over the summer was being visited by 11 incredible students from LAMDA who put on a dynamic, utterly side-splitting production of Love's Labour's Lost and had all the girls playing the boys and the boys playing the girls. This was done partly for practical reasons and partly to give each other a crack at lines they wouldn't usually speak. A couple of reflections:

– when they were trying to sort out costumes for the scene where the King and his cronies dress up as Russians they pulled out some 'svitas'. These are long overcoat-type garments with a fitted body and then a kind of skirt coming down to the knees. On a man it would have looked like traditional Russian dress. However, on the women (playing the men) it just looked as though they were wearing dresses. The players opted for black bomber jackets instead.

– when the women were playing the men there was a certain amount of shoulder-squaring, swaggering and jaw-setting. However, by and large voices were not made deeper and (apart from comedy moustaches used during the Muscovites scene) there was no facial hair added or particular physical embellishments used. But when the men were playing women it was out and out camp. Comedy breasts (two large ones quickly becoming one enormous one from scene to scene) high-pitched voices, lots of giggling, fluttering of eye lids. It was all completely brilliant and hilarious but it struck me that women --> man = attempts to neutralise one's physicality; but man --> women = a pastiche reminiscent of drag acts. In both cases what we saw was one sex playing to an idea (or ideal?) of what they felt it meant to embody the opposite sex. All very intriguing and warranting of much pencil chewing...

– finally, Love's Labour's Lost is without doubt one of Shakespeare's most captivating plays. There is a huge amount of wordplay involved and the story takes some bizarre twists and turns but the ending left me covered in goose bumps. After much madness, four men pledge their love to four women and all seems well until, in the closing lines of the play, a messenger comes to tell the Princess of her father's death. She prepares to go home and the King pleads with her:

Now, at the latest minute of the hour,
Grant us your loves.

Her response is not what we expect at the finale of a Shakespearean comedy:

A time, methinks, too short
To make a world-without-end bargain in...

In a Midsummer Night's Dream it has taken them all of one night to decide that they're all hopelessly in love with each other; Sebastian in Twelfth Night has known Olivia for about five minutes before agreeing to marry her. Yet in LLL the Princess is unwilling to commit to marriage and tells the men that they must spend a year in a monastery and, if they can manage it, only then they will marry them.

It is usually thought that the tragedies are Shakespeare's more transgressive plays, as all is not well that ends well, 'natural order' is disturbed, Jack does not have Jill and chaos often reigns. It is within the comedies that people emerge as they 'should' – bowing to authority and all married to the 'right' people. LLL seems to shy away from this predictable ending and as such it is a play I intend to plunder the depths of in the coming time.

All in all it has been an amazing, emotional, challenging and inspiring summer. It has reminded me once more that any academic study I undertake cannot be done in isolation from real living people – again going back to the thing of being very definitely a woman and not a man, but not being prescriptive about that identity. Women and men live out their identities here and now, and that real-life, lived, living experience needs to be engaged with and given equal worth alongside any theoretical exploration.

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