It’s something everything Bardolator has to contend with: Shakespeare’s tragic women get little stage time and even less agency. They are most often disposed of with a cursory mad scene followed quickly by suicide. Ophelia is almost impossible to mould into a coherent human being onstage. We see very little of Lady Macbeth, clearly the most complex character in the Scottish play, despite the fact that she’s ultimately responsible for the whole sorry mess.
Lady Garden Theatre Company is here to put that right with their first production: Shakespeare’s Mad Women. Riffing on a similar set-up to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and Juliet find themselves in a bizarre state of limbo reserved for the Bard’s suicidal women. Unlike Stoppard’s characters, they have plenty to discuss. Over the course of the play they realise they were all secondary players in someone else’s stories, and (let’s face it) the men they loved weren’t all that great.
Writer and director Abigail Smith ensures this production is bursting at the seams with wit and warmth. The Shakespearean characters we know and love feel fresh and alive. Ophelia (Gabrielle Pausey) scoffs chocolates and demands endless cups of tea. Juliet (Gala Wesson) is so distraught at being separated from her beloved Romeo that she has to be locked in a cupboard. Lady Macbeth (Holly Cuffley) is a jaded mother figure with a dangerous edge.
Smith offers an intelligent critique of the way female characters are side-lined in male writers’ narratives. “What’s a Juliet without a Romeo”, says Lady Macbeth, “Just a girl on a balcony talking to no one”. She also has the characters asking the kind of questions they should have had the chance to explore in Shakespeare’s plays. Is it really OK that Romeo killed Juliet’s cousin? Isn’t it fairly reasonable that Ophelia is inconsolable after her lover murders her father?
A few quibbles. The flashbacks where the characters deliver Shakespearean monologues are unconvincing and overly fussy. Cuffley is fantastic as Lady Macbeth, but unlike Ophelia and Juliet the character bears little resemblance to the Shakespearean original. While the play has plenty to say about Victorian ideas of female hysteria and Renaissance mad women, it’s relatively silent on what it means to be a mentally ill woman in the twenty first century.
The dust sheets that cover much of the set in this production are a telling metaphor. If we want to save Shakespeare’s texts from becoming dusty, historical relics, then we have to confront Shakespearean misogyny. Smith clearly has a lot of affection for the Bard and her exploration of his characters is delicate and often beautiful. Yet the show ends with the three women triumphantly ripping the pages out of Shakespeare’s play texts. The challenge is clear: how do we celebrate the greatest plays in history while acknowledging that the way they treat women is sexist and reductive?
Shakespeare’s Mad Women played at the Theatre N16 from 11 to 13 June
Photo: Lady Garden Theatre Company