Wondering if it is indeed true that “well-behaved women rarely make history,” the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Deputy Artistic Director, Erica Whyman has created a festival which examines, interrogates and celebrates women’s place in theatre, culture and the world, today and in centuries past. Whyman’s Midsummer Mischief festival responds directly to the RSC’s current season of revivals, The Roaring Girls and Arden of Faversham, both written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and which have bold and rule-breaking women at their heart, making for a very exciting time overall for the company indeed.
Using the provocation that “well-behaved women rarely make history” as a springboard, Whyman commissioned four playwrights; Timberlake Wertenbaker, E.V. Crowe, Alice Birch and Abi Zakarian, asking them to respond in any way they felt necessary. And not content with what has become a formidable body of work for the stage, Whyman has gone further in producing a comprehensive programme of talks and debates, making for a festival which breaks the mould, not only for the RSC, but much of British theatre, for being bold, radical and female-led, as well as engaging directly with its audiences.
Wertenbaker, Birch, Crowe and Zakarian’s plays respond to the claim in starkly different ways, each play then paired up to form Programme A and Programme B, which are currently playing in rep in The Other Place, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and soon to hit the Royal Court, London. The talks have seen Whyman go on to extend her provocation to academics, public figures and artists, making for a thorough intellectual and creative interrogation of the issue over the course of the Festival.
Speakers such as Nic Green, who made the groundbreaking Trilogy at the Barbican in 2010 approached the provocation by looking at the history of women in order to look at women in history; mining her own past and the cultural conditions of the 80s and 90s which shaped her own relationship with art and gender to form a response. It was interesting to hear of Green’s own experience of the ‘ladette’ culture of the 90s, and how, from her mother’s involvement in early feminism to the radical work Green herself creates today, in a different way, it is still a struggle today for women’s voices to be heard, not least remembered.
Moderating the talks, Whyman regularly opened the floor to the audience, interrogating what it means to make art about these complex issues and why women’s voices do seem to have always faded into the background. Wertenbaker, herself a prominent voice in theatre, mused on whether women have been forgotten in history because in their lifetimes they have been ignored, asking whether a possibly tactical refusal to engage with women and their work condemns them to disappearance from our cultural memory.
A number of the speakers pointed out their own mothers’ roles in the feminist movement of decades past, and interestingly, as the discussions went on, it became clear that there is a feeling among women today, particularly the younger generations who are still fighting for change, that early feminism began to pave the way, but eventually failed in not going far enough to secure the changes it originally sought to effect. Essentially, though these women had been ‘badly-behaved,’ by demanding equality, their protests and hard work have been consigned only to a barely-remembered moment in history. Indeed, this was referred to in the Roaring Girls Today talk, which featured Caroline Criado-Perez, who campaigned for Jane Austen to be on the bank note, Stella Creasy MP and prominent journalist, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Criado-Perez, having experienced torrents of abuse on social media herself for raising her head above the parapet with her campaign, feels strongly that feminism today faces different challenges, such as the internet. While possibly those before us didn’t necessarily fight to keep the gains they’d made, equally, the playing field today is very, very different for women in terms of the obstacles they need to overcome to be heard, and to in turn make that history.
Continuing the theme of women’s voices today and in history, talks ranged from an examination of Shakespeare’s own radical female characters by Ewan Fernie of the Shakespeare Institute, to an examination by Lesley Ferris of the twentieth century women who banded together to form the earliest all-female theatre company. This neatly tied the Midsummer Mischief festival into the RSC’s traditional body of work, as it cannot be forgotten that Shakespeare’s own plays were themselves radical. Take Rosalind in As You Like It, who cross-dresses in order to woo her love-interest, Orlando – not only breaking gender norms but toeing the line of heteronormative behaviour in what essentially becomes a gay flirtation. Certainly, Shakespeare’s work had as much of a place in this festival as anything else.
This intriguing provocation – that “bad behaviour” does see women making history (on occasion) – leads on to considering exactly what constitutes such behaviour. A common theme throughout the talks, questions and panel discussions was that women speaking up has always been considered unacceptable in the public sphere. Illustrating this, Alihbai-Brown discussed her recent experience where following a televised debate, an MP tweeted that he would like to “punch her in the throat,” for being too vociferous. Criado-Perez made an interesting observation on the imagery men frequently used – she received graphic death and rape threats with repeated reference made to silencing her using parts of the male anatomy. The inference to be drawn here was that the exercise of the fundamental right of free speech is what society has seen historically as a reason to pillory women. Leading on from this, they are then remembered for their bad behaviour and not for their work.
The discussions which Whyman has co-ordinated are no doubt vital, valuable and thought-provoking, but it was noticeable that the audience was largely comprised of women who seemed to need little convincing of the merits of the debate. Indeed, the irony of there being few men present to hear the women’s voices was strong, and indeed this gender imbalance underlined and surely perpetuated this deafness. Equally, it’s disheartening to know that feminism has been sidelined to a women’s-only issue when ultimately, as MP Stella Creasy pointed out, everyone eventually loses out because of inequality. Were we to utilise, encourage, engage with and hear this 51% of our population, surely the advances we could make both in not only the workplace, but as a society, would be huge.
A hypothetical scenario was put to Whyman and her panel in one of the lively discussions: If an artistic director were to programme a full season of plays written, directed, produced and largely performed by women, this would reach the news – which goes to say that we can’t always claim that the work women do isn’t noticed. However, if the opposite were to be the case (i.e. a programme comprised entirely of men and male work), this would be normal rather than notable. This goes to say that women making work at all is wrongfully seen as exceptional: we have a cultural perception of it as a phenomenon. Whyman’s response was particularly interesting, as she herself has effectively created a programme under these conditions on a small scale with the Midsummer Mischief festival. She pointed out how they’d received a significant amount of press coverage, and yet, the focus was on the women speaking up, rather than what any of the writers really had to say.
“Well-behaved women rarely make history”: what an interesting provocation and a fascinating series of events exploring the issue. Indeed, hearing the perspectives of so many highly intelligent, articulate and successful women made for a riveting day and a refreshing break from the middle-class, white, male viewpoint we are so regularly offered. If anything, I can only complain that the event itself was a bit too well-behaved: we know we have a problem with inequality and the suppression of women’s voices by a variety of means, but what we don’t have is a strategy or solution. Indeed, Whyman herself has taken a tremendous step – other theatre companies, artists, organisations and more, take note. However, I was left wondering if maybe simply wanting to have our voices heard isn’t enough – maybe action will speak louder than words, and what we need now is not to endlessly discuss the problem, but focus on the steps we can take towards solution.