This post is a response to the production of Henry IV, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which was recently at St Ann’s Warehouse. Since this was my first time seeing a performance of Henry IV (and this production took the liberty of combining parts 1 and 2) I didn’t feel like it made sense to make this post about those texts. But I am interested in looking at one of the most notable things about this production – its all female cast. One of the things that I aspire to do as a director is to advocate for more and better roles for women. Shakespearean plays can be particularly uninspiring from this vantage point. Often, you’ll have 3 women’s roles to 15 men’s roles, and the size of those roles is significantly smaller in scope. And while Shakespearean plays are something of an open invitation for various conceptual ideas, it’s rare to see an all female production at this level. So, without further ado…
The single most striking element of this production was to see women in roles where there was no apologizing, no softness. In roles where they were initiating action, rather than just responding to what life threw at them. It was thrilling. An actress friend of mine had the opportunity to play Peer Gynt when she was in college. She summarized the difference of experience by saying that female roles are about being female, where male roles are about being human. Which sounds bold, but is actually very true especially with regard to females characters who are under the age of 40. Stories where there is a female protagonist are the minority. When they are the protagonist, their character arch typically revolves around love – falling in love, surviving love gone wrong, etc. And when they manage to avoid the love trap, they tend to be about responding to what’s happened to them – a parent has died, they’ve been diagnosed with cancer, a rebel droid won’t leave them alone. Female characters who pursue their own agenda are often portrayed as villains or deranged or both. I don’t find that to be an accurate representation of my life or the lives of the women I know. But when you hear all these stories and none of them reflect the reality you experience, you start to think it doesn’t really exist. So, it was refreshing on a really profound level to see these women have free reign to be fully human.
There were moments during this production where I forgot I was watching women, moments where I saw them as men. I find this fascinating, especially given that there was no attempt made by the production to disguise them as men. Because of the conceit of this production, that the story was taking place inside a women’s prison, all of the women playing male characters were dresses in grey sweats and t-shirts. But no effort was made to pass them off as men. Breasts were not taped down. If they had longer hair, it was simply pulled back in a pony tail. In an interview with Playbill, Lloyd mentioned that she had really encouraged the cast to use space the way men use space (ie. to take up more of it) and that shift felt very palpable. I love when you can do the heavy lifting of your story in an organic way rather than through special effects. If we want to impress people, special effects are great. But if we want people to be able to relate to us, it’s better to use our own facility.
The least interesting…
I found the two female characters of this production (Lady Percy and Mistress Quickly) to be the least interesting. I’m not entirely sure why that was. Certainly, they are among the smaller roles and are not intricately involved in the plot. But I wonder if having an all female cast contributed, in part, to that dynamic. In a production with traditional casting, these roles could display more masculine characteristics – Percy can be blunt in telling people exactly what she thinks, Quickly can crass and bawdy – without ever being in danger of confusing the issue of whether they are playing men or women. I don’t think these roles were intentionally pulled back, but they just didn’t standout. It’s worth thinking about how you distinguish your female roles from your male roles (and what function they serve) when your entire cast is female.
I read an article recently that talked about the word “equal”. Its point was that we’ve begun using “equal” as a synonym for the word “same” and that we should strive to avoid that. Equal refers to a fixed quantity. Thus, men and women are not equal. They can have equal rights. They can be paid equal salaries. They can have equal intelligences. But they are not the same items. And when you replace one with the other, while many things will remain the same, there will be a shift in some things. One of the things my husband remarked on with regard to this production was that he missed the genuine affection and comradery between Hal and Falstaff that he had seen in more traditional productions. Which makes sense. The bulk of the interaction between these two revolves around Hal publicly humiliating Falstaff, a dynamic which is all in good fun among a group of guy friends. But among women, that dynamic doesn’t exist. Among women, that behavior is malicious and signals a major breach in the relationship. And since the women where not disguising themselves as men, this change of dynamic altered their relationship and significantly reduced the impact of Hal severing all ties with Falstaff in the final moments of the production.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Post them below. The more, the merrier.