Members of all-female Shakespeare company Smooth Faced Gentlemen tell Olivia Luder about dipping into male characters, crying onstage and looking beyond a character’s sex…
While all-male Shakespeare productions and companies are nothing new, it is rarer that women get to play Shakespearean characters beyond their traditional remit. From the villainy of Lady Macbeth to the humour of Beatrice, no one is claiming that women don’t have any good parts in Shakespeare’s play. However, considering the treasure trove of the Bard’s male characters, it seems only fair the women get a chance to sink their teeth into more.
Luckily, alongside recent all-female productions at the Donmar Theatre and The Globe, Smooth Faced Gentlemen has stepped in to let the ladies snap up some of those cod-pieced parts. The only all-female Shakespeare company in the UK, it was established in March 2012 with its inaugural production of Romeo and Juliet winning Best Production at the 2012 Buxton Fringe. Back for another round on the festival circuit, it has taken its all-female production of Titus Andronicus to the Buxton Fringe and will be heading to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I sat down with co-founder and actor Ashlea Kaye, and actors Henri Marriam and Madeline Gould, to discuss moving beyond audience expectation and what lies beneath Titus’s gore.
Founded by Kaye alongside Michael Grady-Hall, Yaz Al-Shaater (Director of Titus) and Mariam Bell, the idea for a single-sex female company arrived during a debate on all-male companies and related female frustration in a Stratford-upon-Avon pub. “It kind of riled us a bit and then we said, ‘why not just do something about it? Stop moaning and do it,’” Kaye explained. The establishing ethos of the company stretched beyond women playing male roles, seeking to challenge audience expectation. “What we hoped with Romeo and Juliet,” Kaye said, “is that people would come in and be like ‘Oh it’s an all-female production,’ and leave and forget [that it was all-female]. And they did and that was what was great – it was all about the characters.” Marriam expanded further, “A lot of people, when we did Romeo and Juliet, assumed that we were turning all the parts female so it was like ‘Romea and Juliet’ or whatever, that kind of idea of ‘you can’t really play men’.”
Gould was intrigued by the audience’s need to ascribe a specific purpose to the company: “[What people] try to find out is what point we’re trying to make which I think is really interesting because there so many brilliant points you can make. I’m also like ‘you’re assuming that we’re trying to make a statement rather than just being a group of people who want to perform plays together performing a play!’.”
Titus Andronicus was chosen as Smooth Faced Gentlemen’s second production: “We literally sat there with the complete works of Shakespeare and went ‘Right, what do we want to do?” Kaye laughed. “We all went away and read them all, and Titus just sparkled to us.” The eponymous Roman General (played by Marriam), returns home from ten years of war with nearly all of his sons dead and the captured Queen of the Goths, Tamora (played by Goulde), in tow. In accordance with Roman tradition, he sacrifices one of Tamera’s sons to the gods. Tamora seeks revenge and soon the two embrace all manner of brutal violence until the play’s horrific end.
It is clear that the Smooth Faced Gentlemen are relishing rehearsing the Roman blood-fest. With four of the eight-person cast playing multiple roles, Kaye described the company’s approach to the material as “fast, fresh, fun and funny” and emphasised the need to “strip it down really quickly […] and just to keep this energy driving through.” The company seeks to keep a lively and engaging pace, as Gould explained: “I think the audience go with you when you approach it like that rather than going ‘nah, I’ll sit here and let men with beards boom at me’.”
When playing male characters, the cast found it important to not approach the characters in relation to their sex: “Titus, Marcus they spend a lot of time, going ‘oh I’m crying’,” Marriam explained, “They don’t care and I think it would be awkward to be like ‘oh wait, I have got to cry like a man’… It’s just about human experience”. Gould had a similar approach, wanting to find her way to the character through the text: “Playing Tamora, people have said to me ‘ice queen, warrior queen, king queen’ all these things, and so I already had in my head a picture of this person before I had really even read the play properly. But, it being an all-female cast, you are looking at it from a general relationship point of view […] it just makes you reassess what the part you’re playing is.”
Just as they explored characters beyond their sex, the production put aside gore to examine the reasoning behind the violence. “We’ve tried to make sure that the reasons matter,” Marriam said. “I mean, they might be fairly tenuous, but to the person that is inspiring the act of violence, they matter.” Far from being simply bloodthirsty and power-hungry, Gould asserts that “Titus and Tamora are motivated by their feelings for their children… If we’re going to pick a heart of the play, I think it’s about parenthood and what you would do for your children.”
Titus Andronicus looks to be an interesting production but as the Smooth Faced Gentlemen head into another successful summer, they should not be congratulated for their quality as an all-female company. Rather, it is for their merits as an intelligent and considered Shakespeare company whose cast just happens to consist of a single gender that their audiences should remember them.
Titus Andronicus will be at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 2-24 August. For more information and tickets visit the EdFringe website.