Women in Shakespeare

by Judith Roberts on 8 November 2016


Charlotte Quinney, English Literature (2011)

Since graduating in 2014 I have been working as a freelance practitioner of Shakespeare until I start the Teach First programme in June; I also write poetry.

'...The purpose of playing... to hold, as t'were, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.'

By the time I graduated, Footfall Theatre had already taken shape. We took our first production to Edinburgh in the Summer of 2014, winning an award for innovation in Shakespeare and returning to London for a sell-out run that Autumn. Footfall was a company designed to realise the political and theatrical ambitions of its founding members. As actors and directors, we wanted to make good art, but as feminists we wanted to make art that was good for women. As we developed our production of King Lear, we started working on what became two axes of accessibility, which would allow us to achieve both these aims simultaneously, ultimately seeing that they almost always intersect: the vertical axis was the one on which we delved deeply into the female questions at the heart of the play; the horizontal axis was the one on which we made those ideas comprehensible and available to as wide an audience as possible.Charlotte Quinney

Making Shakespeare accessible is a political act: certainly, a group of women turning a profit in their own company had political significance but this was a necessary politics rather than an ideological one. More important was the inherent politics of language- or articulacy. What I think Donald Trump has being trying to suggest, with ironic incoherence, is that those with the 'best words' have the power: words are weapons. To have access to language is to have the tools to encounter and overcome so many barriers to achievement. A company that doesn't fight to release and share the possibilities of Shakespeare's language cannot call itself feminist, because feminism is really a movement about social mobility.

In that first production, 'Lear's Daughters', the text of the play was reconfigured (although only lightly reworded) into an hour-long play with three speaking characters and a singer: the three daughters of King Lear and his musical full-time carer, the fool. Modernising Shakespeare isn't just about putting on jeans and using phones instead of letters, it's about understanding how modern theatre works, what its audiences expect and the stories that capture the imaginations of its people. Shakespeare shaped his plays to the form and pressure of his time, and so must we. Our production, therefore, was a 'kitchen-sink' (or rather, kitchen table) story of three modern women struggling with an ageing and demanding patriarch. True to the rhythms and images of the play and to the original arc of the plot, our production extended itself along both axes of accessibility and brought three complex women to the forefront of what was always, in so many ways, their own story.

Since that first show, we have done another production, 'Arden Creatures', which was a four-person re-telling of 'As You Like It', and developed an educational programme. My role within the company and as a freelance practitioner is as verse adviser: a linguistic specialist who works with actors on how to inhabit the sounds and shapes of Shakespeare's language. It's hard work, is physical work, and it seeks to be political because it enables everyone who takes part to realise their own capacity for expression, and their own ability to understand, re-imagine and take full ownership of the most astonishing language ever written in English. Is there a more empowering freedom than freedom of expression? Not that I know of. I think that the linguistic liberation of the masses could be the ultimate threat to the hierarchical status quo- if everyone could 'do' Shakespeare, if they had the chance to wrap their mouths around the soul-shuddering vowels of a great tragedy and to speak the speech as Shakespeare intended- trippingly on the tongue- would they stand the indignities of right-wing capitalism and systematic misogyny? No, my friends, they would not.

Charlotte in character at the Footfall TheatreWhere Footfall fits into the world is that is represents the thirst of theatre-makers and theatre-goers for intersectional feminist story-telling. Story telling that spreads ideas to new people, instead of celebrating them in the echo-chamber of a certain kind of privilege. Enough, old white men, we have heard your stories. The world of art is more awake than ever to its accustomed blinkers, and, more than ever, understands that an artistic culture that predominantly focuses on the experiences of educated white men is too narrow to be meaningful, and too privileged to change the world.

It was with great joy and excitement that my generation of feminist theatre makers saw the appointment of Emma Rice, formerly joint Artistic Director of Knee High productions, as the new Artistic Director of the Globe in London. In her first season, she boldly asserted her commitment to equal representation of women on her stage, and did what the RSC utterly failed to do: create a feminist version of Cymbeline. Two productions, put on almost simultaneously and conceived probably within months of each other, and yet the RSC- the establishment of establishments- predictably made a nonsensical and two-dimensional version of Cymbeline- crudely performing its feminism by switching the genders of king and queen (even though the queen was always the more interesting part) and inserting a sex scene at the beginning to make the production and its heroine look a bit racy. Because having sex, according to that production, is the only way a woman can have a meaningful sexuality. Never mind that the other character in that love-lock, her husband Postumus, goes on to say that they never engaged in sex of any kind- a direct contradiction of the opening scene. 'Suit the action to the word', Hamlet advises, as do I to my actors. Don't fight the text, I tell them, because it's all there is. Did they think the audience wouldn't understand? Perhaps they did. The audience at Stratford is typically held in an uncritically bovine stupor which it is absolutely in the interests of that establishment to perpetuate. Meanwhile, Emma Rice does what I think the play intends at its core: she renames it and asserts the importance of the play's true protagonist: 'Imogen; renamed and reclaimed'.

Earlier in the year Rice's 'Midsummer Night's Dream' was a revelation: Helena was Helenus, a young man in love with Demetrius (whose rejection of his true sexuality in favour of a more publicly palpable heterosexual marriage is undone by the magic of the forest), Athens was London, and Puck was a woman shamelessly enjoying her own hedonism. The production was pulsating with erotic power, comedy and music. Women were everywhere, and diversity of race, gender and sexuality shook up the conventional voices of mainstream Shakespearean theatre: the stage was awash with athleticism, sex and light. And yet that last, though it helped to create an atmosphere so magical that both die-hard Shakespeare nuts like me and first time watchers passing through London on holiday were utterly entranced, seems to have been Rice's 'fatal flaw'. This woman, who was hired for the very unconventionality of her past career, and who had done everything and more that a person could to re-create, through accessibility, an Early-Modern experience of Shakespeare's work, has been in this last week given the shove because she dared to light the stage and ditch the doublets. We'll hire a woman, they seem to say, but only if she makes theatre like a man. Emma Rice is an intersectional feminist, and her enormously successful first season (both financially and artistically) is because she satisfies the thirsts of the times: she used lights and modern costumes because she had the guts to do what Shakespeare really intended, which wasn't historical accuracy, but to show the very age and body of the time its form and pressure.

Sadly, the old white men in charge just weren't ready for this woman to assert her genius, and Rice's tenure at the Globe has been cut short. But what Footfall and companies like us are determined to do is to continue pushing against conservative cowardice and to make the political, unexpected and sexy theatre that Shakespeare would have wanted. As audience and practitioners, we must continue to insist on progress. Stand back, world: feminism is the new face of Shakespeare.

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