September 29, 2012 by johannafactotum
When I was in undergrad, we had two Shakespeare companies on campus, one that was all-male, and one that was all-female. When explaining this to people, the existence of the latter group provoked questions. All-male Shakespeare makes a great deal of sense, obviously, and in this case and in general, all-female Shakespeare seems to exist just to complement it. This was the Globe Theatre under Mark Rylance’s justification: their all-male, original practice productions of Shakespeare came under criticism for depriving female actors of already scarce roles, so they put up a couple all-female productions to balance the scales. Dr. Karim-Cooper praised the two productions for offering insight into “the complexities of the sexual politics of the plays.” (here)
So is that the point of all-female Shakespeare? It sometimes was in undergrad, when we (as all female companies must) tackled The Taming of the Shrew. The men never needed to justify their choices, but I felt the women were always wrestling with why particular shows should be done. These justifications ranged from the straightforward (we’ll never get to play Macbeth, so why not give it a try? won’t Viola’s disguise seem more convincing in a theatrical world where all the men look like she does?) to the philosophical (surely women are permitted to comment on Shrew in a way men cannot?). But frankly, these excuses always rang hollow, and the compulsive need to justify choices with a commentary on feminism and gender seemed just as limiting as performing the plays traditionally. I have long been passionate about the idea of all-female Shakespeare, and I realized that all of this twisting and excusing and sexual politicking had nothing to do with the reason why.
My interest in all-female Shakespeare (and I think many women would agree) springs, at its core, from something quite selfish: I want to play the good parts. There are roles I have played in all-female contexts that I have seen played by women in mixed casts, and horizons on the whole are expanding: female Benvolios are frequent, and I have seen a female Antonio in The Tempest (and in Twelfth Night for that matter, though not professionally, as it strikes me as somewhat missing the point) and a female Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. And that’s not even counting conceptual (or star vehicle) casting of female Hamlets, Julius Caesars, and surely others. But there are two downsides to this: however enlightened we may feel, we aren’t perfect yet, and altering the gender of these principle characters inevitably changes the play. Caesar’s relationships with Antony and Brutus take on new dimensions, and as I have never seen it, I have no idea what female Hamlets do about Ophelia. Female Benvolios are inevitably in love with Romeo or Mercutio. These casting choices are a concept. Applied femininity cannot be neutral.
And even in this non-neutral context, some roles are sacrosanct. I have never heard of a female Richard III or Henry V or Lear. I know a long, long list of actresses who would die to play Iago, but all are equally convinced that it will never happen.
These two problems are secretly the same: theatrically, we are locked into our images of the types of roles and relationships women fill onstage. It is just not conceivable that a female Don John would have the same relationship to her brother Don Pedro as a male one, or that a female Benvolio could just be one of the guys, too. There are some male characters we can imagine as women, but no one seems able to believe that any women could ever be like Richard III. And that, at long last, is the point.
Okay, there are two points. The first is that all-female Shakespeare levels the playing field within the play itself. Until we break out of these narrow conceptions of femininity, which certainly won’t be within my lifetime, playing roles as men with other women allows the character and relationship dynamics to remain intact in a way they cannot with, for example, the female Julius Caesar being mourned by a male Mark Antony. And if character is revealed by relationship (and let’s get into that debate later), this is key to actually portraying the famous characters as written.
The second point is much more important to me.
Henry IV Part 1 is probably my favorite Shakespeare play. The best Hotspur I have ever seen, the person I felt most perfectly captured the essence of the character- giving him energy without mocking him, but also gravity without becoming dour- was a woman. (For full disclosure, I was in the production as well, but that doesn’t change the fact that her Hotspur was, to me, perfect.) This woman is a talented actress, and because she’s blonde and graceful she’ll probably spend most of her time being cast as ingénues of various flavors. But watching her play Hotspur, she captured not only the essence of the character, but the essence of herself. There is something glorious and beautiful in the truthfulness of an actor playing a character that fits them perfectly. But because Hotspur is martial and energetic and passionate in ways that we gender masculine, she will likely never have the opportunity to play him again.
Most actors, I assume, have the experience at least once of playing a character for whom they are completely perfect. Some actresses have it as well (I think of Victoria Clark in the musical version of The Light in the Piazza, who was the only main character to remain with the show for its entire run because, she said, it’s not often you find a role that feels so right). But I have actress friends who I think will never have it, because women like them don’t exist onstage. This female Hotspur is an example, or an actress friend who perfectly embodies the snarky erudition that defines Berowne or Dakin in The History Boys or everything Rupert Everett plays, but has no female analogue.
I think this denial is a feminist issue. Female characters only come in certain modes and models onstage because we refuse to believe that they exist otherwise in life. Friends of mine critiqued Julie Taymor’s choice to cast Helen Mirren as Prospero in her film adaption of The Tempest by saying that “a mother wouldn’t act that way.” Why is it that there is a pat way A Mother acts, so that to fail to adhere to this model is to somehow fail at motherhood itself? You only have to meet two mothers to realize that not every mother is exactly the same. By the same token, I know women who have relationships with male friends exactly like that of Benvolio to Romeo, but as soon as Benvolio is made female onstage, this relationship must be qualified and, more often than not, sexualized. In this way, women who deviate from proscribed models see the truths of themselves denied over and over, and are instead offered constant reminders that women like them do not, or perhaps should not, exist.
Women deserve the pleasure of inhabiting roles that suit them perfectly, and audiences deserve the pleasure of seeing it, and of realizing that what is essential to these roles is their humanity, not their gender. This needn’t come in some politics-laden production of Taming of the Shrew or Measure for Measure, but simply by telling the stories.
And why Shakespeare? Well, if you’re going to go for it, you may as well start with the best.