Directing an all-female Shakespeare, Jacquie Penrose, Bench Theatre
I had long toyed with the idea of an all-female Shakespeare production. In both modern and classical theatre roles for women are limited, yet our company, like so many others, abounds with female talent. Only about 14% of Shakespeare’s characters are female. Some of the roles are excellent for performers – Isabella in Measure for Measure being one of them – but there are few of them. As a result, few women get the chance to be fully part of a Shakespeare production.
All-male productions and companies are common (thus shrinking opportunities further) but all-female much less so. Maybe I was put off from having a go by lingering memories of all-girl school plays, and drama classes where girls dress up as boys just to fill the roles. I was finally persuaded that it can work and work well by Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse in 2012. I decided the Bench Theatre should take on.
Another reason why it is a viable idea is that Shakespeare himself was fascinated by gender ambivalence. Having no choice but to cast young boys in his female roles, he relished the opportunity to dress them up as girls disguised as boys being made love to by girls played by boys. In this play, the terrific seduction scene in the middle would have had a very young boy squaring up to a mature man playing Angelo. It seems reasonable to turn that on its head.
Finally, this is a play dominated by male attitudes to women. It reflects a society in the midst of a moral panic, obsessed with sex and its consequences, fearful of disease. And all that bad news is of course women’s fault. So why not take a look at that world through female eyes?
Our starting point for this production was that this is a company of actors – who happen to be female. The job of the actor is to take on a role, one which may be quite different from the actor herself. Masculinity and femininity are themselves roles that people take on in their daily lives – and women in particular are still punished for failing to perform it ‘properly’. So our company of actors take on their roles in Measure for Measure, and some of them are male, but character, status, situation and emotion are all just as important as gender.