Writer Eleanor Dewar speaks to Josie Underwood, co-founder of the theatre troupe Silent Faces, about not adapting Samuel Beckett, gender in Shakespeare, and challenging the canon.
When Josie Underwood and the rest of the Silent Faces theatre group were mulling over what was next for their troupe, Samuel Beckett (and more specifically, Waiting for Godot) seemed like the natural choice. “We’re a physical theatre company with a lot of clown work and are strongly influenced by Beckett,” Underwood explains to me as we sit down for a chat. “We got to a point where we’re making fringe-y shows, but we wanted to reach a slightly bigger audience. Beckett [was] the right choice as it is so close to our own work.”
There was one small glitch to this plan, however: women are not allowed rights to Waiting for Godot. This inevitably then formed a new idea and play: Waiting for Waiting for Godot. “We realised that we weren’t going to get the rights and we thought maybe this is more of a pressing topic,” Underwood elaborates. Another challenge then presented itself: “Someone else had already done Waiting for Waiting for Godot so the conversation got more ridiculous.” And thus, out of the chaos, Godot is a Woman was born.
Beckett’s plays are infamous for their oddness, for people not really ‘getting it’ and I am curious to see how the company adapted to such a challenge. One thing Underwood does make absolutely clear to me is that this is not an adaptation. “We’re not telling the story, we’re commenting on Waiting for Godot. If we were commenting on the themes of existence and connecting to others it would be a very different play.” It is such themes like those based on the human experience and how we connect to one another that has made Godot secure in its place as a beloved modern play, but Underwood suggests that it makes the ban on women even more problematic. “If women can’t portray the human existence – what Godot is about, then of course they feel they can’t get into higher positions of power to speak for us all.”
Underwood then moves on to the fascinating topic of how the female creative process is forever defined by gender. “The themes of the play are so relevant to what it is to exist, and what it is to not know, but when a woman becomes involved, it does become about gender. So, we’re not allowed [to do it] and then it becomes about gender – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Thus, a paradox appears. On one hand, “In the space of #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein, it felt like the right time to step in and go ‘why do we have the boundaries and the wider implications and women in power are far less represented?’” But it appears by doing so, Underwood and the Silent Faces team still face the task of not making it just about a female lead. So, what can be done to make these canonical pieces more accessible to women and non-binary artists?
“It’s a tricky one. The whole canon is incredibly male-centric and women’s roles in the classics are as a wife, mother or daughter, with even Lady Macbeth still being Macbeth’s wife,” Underwood notes. “So, there is a massive tendency to be male-centric, you can do a female Macbeth, [a] female Hamlet, but these parts aren’t written for women in the first place. I don’t think it would be right to argue men and women are the same. If Macbeth was a woman in the first place, it would be a different play.” For Underwood it appears that the true issue is down to “the decisions about who is playing the roles. Do you make the decision to have a female Hamlet but make it centred on gender as it wasn’t about a woman?”
It is not only Silent Face’s tackling of gender in Godot is a Woman that is unique about this production, the entire creative process was one collaborative movement with all three members of the company taking some hand in directing the piece. “A lot of what we do is improvised before writing it all down. In the rehearsal room there is some outside help but we all have a say in the directional decisions and the directions of each scene,” Underwood tells me, but rather than being a logistical nightmare of three creative visions fighting for the spotlight, she describes it as the coming together of multiple unique perspectives.
“It just means beforehand there is a lot of conversation about what we are trying to say and what the conversations need to be about. We need to be on the same page.” Not only this, but almost a million miles away from the arguably narrow view point of the Waiting for Godot’s creative decisions regarding female casting, Silent Faces are more than welcoming of various perspectives. Using again the inspiration of Beckett, ‘to play with physical language,’ Silent Faces are challenging the accepted status quo of theatre and are instead creating a creative and inclusive space for everyone to be a part of.
Godot is a Woman is playing from 11th–15th November. Tickets are available on the Pleasance Theatre website.