As Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Watford Palace Theatre, I have been running a feminist theatre for over ten years. This simply means that I try to give equal creative opportunities to men and women, onstage and off. I don’t tend to programme shows in which women are marginalised, commission equal numbers of women and men and aim for gender balance in my creative teams. Ultimately, I look for work with a range of roles for women of all ages. This is – at last – becoming less unusual.
I have been casting women in male roles in Shakespeare for a long time, beginning with a female Prospero twenty-five years ago. We played the character as a woman, bringing aspects of the actress’s own identity to the role, which opened an interesting resonance with witchcraft, as well as maternal elements in the relationship with Caliban. I’ve had contemporary female soldiers in a Henry V and done all-female student productions of classical romantic comedies, with the girls playing the men as men. This adds a whole layer of delight and playfulness, and a different kind of observation of our mutual foibles to the comedy experience. This all led me to do the Watford Palace’s Much Ado About Nothing with a company of all-women.
I have found auditioning for and rehearsing this all female production fascinating in terms of process. Even in this day and age, the female actors are not used to speaking text which commands the stage and sets the agenda and controls the space for whole scenes. People have found it daunting, then exhilarating! The process itself has been far more political and exciting than I had anticipated.
In the time of #MeToo and the US Supreme Court election of #Kavanaugh, it has been a powerful experience doing such a patriarchal show, in which a young girl is publicly slut-shamed in the church on her wedding day, and even her own father does not believe her denials. It means we can show the suppression and humiliation of the character without simply re-enacting a similar process with a group of powerful and experienced men taking up all the space and oxygen while the young girl is silenced. It’s a straightforward Brechtian effect.
A few years ago I saw a play about Britain’s first all-female theatre company. I knew they toured during the Second World War, and I had an instinct this might be a way into Much Ado. Researching at the V & A Theatre Museum, I was astonished to find the company was founded as long ago as 1923. A remarkable woman called Nancy Hewins got involved in theatre as a student at Oxford, and became Britain’s first female Lighting Designer. She came from a wealthy family and her mother supported her in setting up what later became the Osiris Players. A company of seven women lived, worked and toured together. They used a Rolls Royce (so reliable) and made their own sets and costumes. The actresses were not paid wages, but had their clothes, shoes, living expenses and doctor’s bills paid. Nancy claimed women were the most reliable actors willing to do the work on these terms.
From this, I imagined a company of female actors doing their own production of Much Ado while the men were away at war. In that way we are also celebrating my mother’s generation of women, who played such vital roles in the War, doing the men’s jobs they were excluded from before, and since.
But in the end this is all about Shakespeare. I trained at the RSC and have always been obsessed with Shakespeare’s texts, and this is my favourite of his comedies. It has been great to find that in the end women playing men has simply not been an issue for our audience: as Hamlet says, the play’s the thing.
Much Ado About Nothing plays at the Watford Palace Theatre from October 4 to 27. For more information, see link.