On Shakespeare and Gender – some ideas

So, I’ve decided to start blogging. Expect a lot of theatre talk, Shakespeare, feminist ranting, and discussion of GLBTQ issues. Oh, and pizza, probably.

For two years I’ve been running the all-female Little but Fierce Theatre (which primarily does Shakespeare adaptations or Shakespeare-inspired new work). Our first ever production was actually commissioned by the RSC, to perform in the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which was a thrill – all downhill from there! We’re currently working on a new project (5 Minute Shakespeare), of which more later. One of my main interests other than Shakespeare is gender and sexuality. I wanted to use this blog to brainstorm some ideas we’ve been throwing around for potential future productions. Comments are always more than welcome.

Measure for Measure
A production of Measure for Measure set in modern day Bible Belt USA. Measure for Measure has long been my favourite Shakespeare play and one with huge relevance to contemporary issues of gender politics and the policing of sexual behaviour. I used Isabella’s 5.1 speech as an audition monologue once, and was told it wasn’t a good choice as the speech was pure plot recapping. Well, I disagree. I think the speech is tremendous. Read it. I’ll wait. Imagine you are a helpless woman in an environment where women are often voiceless, an orphan, the sister of a condemned criminal, an enemy of the (de facto) state ruler. You have to force yourself onto an unwilling crowd, make them hear you, to accuse this icy paragon of virtue of all manner of crime and impropriety. What does Isabella do, when she gets the chance to make her accusation? She doesn’t behave in what might be considered a ‘womanly’ way. She isn’t sad. She isn’t shy. She isn’t ashamed. She doesn’t even calmly recount the facts. Instead, she – basically – starts shit-talking him in front of everyone, launching into a scathing round of insults and abuse. It’s remarkable, and though I’ve played Isabella twice I still haven’t quite gotten to grips with this scene. Second, the fact is of course, that she is lying. He didn’t rape her, because she wasn’t the one he slept with. Considering the entire plot is Isabella’s willingness to sacrifice her brother to save her from sin, it’s significant that she not only facilitates two others having pre-marital sex, but is willing to lie.

Often I’ve seen Measure for Measure criticized for being unrealistic, due to its portrayal of a city that contains brothels yet where men can be arrested and sentenced to death for having pre-marital sex. I disagree with this in general, but I think that conflict has huge contemporary bite. Where better to set a production than a part of the USA where strip joints jostle for space alongside mega-churches?

Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado, set in a fading regional (northern) theatre company in the early 1960s. Hero as the theatre owner’s “nuffink’s too good for my princess” daughter. Benedict and the other men returning from a foreign tour. The Watch as ushers. Margaret and Ursula as makeup/wardrobe ladies.

There’s a lot more  to this than I want to go into here, but in terms of the play’s exploration of gender politics, I like the idea of setting a production in the early ’60s. The clash of very traditional 1950s (or at least the modern perception of) with the counter culture and feminist movements of the 1960s. I imagine Hero as a stereotypical 1950s ‘good girl’, all demure dresses and pearls and still stuck in the traditional 1950s mindset; Beatrice as an early adopter hippie in dungarees with protest buttons on them. (Beatrice’s staunch insistence that she will never marry – and implied never have children – is revolutionary even by today’s standards, when you think of the crap women who are self-declared childfree still get.) Much Ado again is a play that’s criticized as unrealistic for expecting the audience to buy into in a world in which a young woman can be shunned so completely simply for not being a virgin on her wedding day, and again I disagree. For one thing I don’t think that is unbelievable at all. Besides it’s fairly explicit in the text that no one would care if Hero and Claudio had had pre-marital sex, and no one seems to care that Margaret slept with Borachio. I don’t consider the reaction to Claudio’s accusation to be a reflection on a religious and repressive society so much as to Hero’s character and reputation and the specific circumstances of the accusation.

Which I feel would work rather nicely with a 50s/60s culture clash setting.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The best production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I’ve ever seen was performed in a parking lot in downtown Manhattan, with the Athenians as Upper East Siders and the fairies as kind of urban street rats. Dream is such a subversive play, I’ve never understood why it’s become something of a standard for people who want to put pretty, ‘dainty’ productions with little kids twirling round in tutus.

At the moment we’re discussing the possibility of doing a production where the fairies are cast entire using non-cisgender actors. It’s in such early stages I don’t want to write too much yet, but I welcome any feedback on the idea.

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