Image by Greg Veit
“Why did you choose to perform an all-female Shakespeare?” a radio interviewer asked The Flanagan Collective, a York-based theatre company described by its artistic director as a group that makes things happen. “Because that’s a question people still ask”, replied Amie Burns Walker who plays Juliet in the company’s latest offering – an all-stomping and all-fearless rendition of Romeo and Juliet.
Representation of women in theatre remains a hot topic. Shakespeare is a beacon for British theatre, and yet all-female productions are rare in the UK. Perhaps it is hard to shed an objective light on one of our favourite home-grown playwrights and his much-loved and male-dominated works. Yet it feels rather in keeping with the cross-dressing playfulness of Shakespeare to cast females in male parts, and many theatre makers and audiences feel it is time to give female voices to Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo.
“If anything”, says Alexander Wright, artistic director of The Flanagan Collective and director of Romeo and Juliet, “we are late with our all-female Shakespeare. It was a political choice to cast in this way, rather than an artistic one. As a company, we realised we should be doing more to redress the balance and representation of women on our stages – especially in Shakespeare.”
“Though we know we wanted to do an all-female Romeo and Juliet, we made no decisions about how that would play out on stage. I felt it would be incredibly arrogant of me as a man to dictate what six women should be doing. As a group, we decided the cast would play the male characters as women, rather than as women playing men.” At first the group found it hard to remember simple things such as using a female pronoun for Romeo. However, “after about two weeks of rehearsals, it became easier. We kind of forgot we were making an all-female version. The question of gender came lower down the list of important things because it became about the story…The all-female version was, in fact, not about gender but about people.”
And about young people specifically, with their daring and spirited abandon that drives so much of the tale placed in the centre of their show. “As I see it”, explains Wright, “there are two ways of approaching Romeo and Juliet. The first is from the parents’ perspective where everything is falling apart and they are trying desperately to hold it together. The other angle is from the perspective of youth, with the sheer choice and reverence in living fast and loose. We thought we wanted to make that version of the show when we’re young enough to know what it feels like. All of us have experienced the abandon of falling in love… those feelings that really do resonate and spark a lot of the action in the play.”
The Flanagan Collective rehearse with “a lot of running round, games – oh, and some Shakespeare”. Some audience members assume they have entered the wrong venue when greeted with a party atmosphere, complete with dancing, party poppers and balloons, all to the full-blast beat of the electronic band The Prodigy and live harmonies. “It is exciting and young, colourful and messy. The show feels very live, and not like we’re walking into a tragedy from the word go. When those horrible events unfold, it doesn’t feel like we’ve been expecting it from the beginning… A friend of mine watched it and said it’s the first time he’s watched a play, known what’s going to happen but really hoped it wouldn’t”.
The company’s decision to cast an all-female Romeo and Juliet, of course, had everything to do with gender, but the production that resulted has nothing to do with it. And that, reflected Wright, was rather the point. “I am genuinely proud making a show over 400 years old that feels, beat for beat, about us in the here and now. I’m really proud of making a piece of work with six women in it, that isn’t about the fact it has six women in it. It’s about people. And that’s all credit to Shakespeare.”
Romeo and Juliet is playing the Arts Theatre until June 13. For more information and tickets, see their website.