Irish Women Making Shakespeare #WakingTheFeminists

Aisling O'Sullivan as Henry V in DruidShakespeare (dir. Garry Hynes).
Aisling O’Sullivan as Henry V in DruidShakespeare (dir. Garry Hynes). Photo by Matthew Thompson.

Okay, so this is a quick post (out of so many scheduled blog posts — long gestating theatre reviews and other thought pieces come to mind). So the #WakingTheFeminists movement has jumped into hyperspeed, with a public meeting called for this Thursday at 1pm at the Abbey Theatre. I’m concerned that the Abbey are calling it a debate when they clearly know that they have to address gender inequality in the theatre, but that’s by the by. Anyway, I’ll be at the meeting, and if you’re in Ireland and concerned about this, I hope you will be there too.

Perhaps it is because I am so very predictable, but I began to wonder how many female theatre practitioners, or any practitioners who are not white cisgender men, have directed canonical works at theatres at the Abbey. More specifically, I started thinking about Shakespeare performance directed by women based in Ireland, and at the Abbey.

Hear me out here — sure, we don’t have a tradition of performing Shakespeare so entrenched as that of the UK’s. But the reason why I’m so interested in Irish Shakespeare in relation to #WakingTheFeminists is how, more than ever, Shakespeare performance and its criticism must be feminist, and it must be intersectional. Feminism and Shakespeare/early modern performance aren’t necessarily exclusive terms — I think of Harriet Walter and the Women’s Group at the RSC in the 1980s (ask any feminist Shakespearean about Clamorous Voices and you will receive an enthusiastic response), I think of Maria Aberg’s productions for the RSC over the last few years, I think of Walter’s collaborations with Phyllida Lloyd and Clean Break at the Donmar. And in terms of research, I think of the work of Sarah Werner, Susan Bennett, Kim Solga, Pascale Aebischer, Nora Williams, Miranda Fay Thomas, and Sophie Duncan. There are more of us than you think.

To illustrate what I’m trying to say, I’m copying in Solga’s definition of early modern performance studies (which is what I, and many others, refer to our field as). It’s a definition that speaks to feminist activism, that speaks to the present day:

Early modern performance studies examines the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries by exploring in rich detail the cultural contexts in which that work was made, and also thinks about contemporary productions of early modern play texts within the cultural contexts of the producers (that is, you and me). Our culture has a seemingly tireless fascination with four-hundred year old plays; my work asks why that is, and digs deeply into the kinds of contemporary messages (for example, about men and women, about violence, about space and place) we use those plays to communicate to one another now.

I guess what’s most relevant about that quote is the latter part: how early modern performance speaks to the here and now, and what messages we send out through the production of these plays. And it is my belief that you cannot stage Shakespeare, or any early modern play, without critically engaging with its misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and the dominance of its male characters. This is not a world where The Merchant of Venice can be performed as a Good v Evil romp, or where you can play Othello or Aaron in blackface, or where you can brush over the attempted rape in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, or where you can take Kate’s last speech in The Taming of the Shrew for granted. A feminist approach towards performing Shakespeare is absolutely crucial and necessary for the theatre. Not every Shakespeare performance gets it right, or thinks about it that much, however — but it’s been done before, and it can continue now.

So, what about Ireland? Druid and Rough Magic are the first to come to mind. I could write all day about DruidShakespeare being one of the most radical and wonderfully feminist Shakespearean productions I’ve seen in a long time, but I won’t because that’s for the thesis. Lynne Parker’s directed Macbeth for the Lyric (and as for the Lyric, let’s not forget Mary O’Malley), as well as directing The Taming of the Shrew as set in rural Ireland for Rough Magic. Selina Cartmell’s work for Siren includes her landmark Titus Andronicus and Ben Power’s A Tender Thing, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. We’ve also got some fantastic actresses who have played Shakespearean roles too: Natalie Radmall-Quirke, Aisling O’Sullivan, Derbhle Crotty, to name a few. That’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. (There’s a lot to be said about the cultural politics of staging Shakespeare in this country, and how this ties in here, but that would take even longer and… look, wait until I finish my thesis, okay?)

As for the Abbey, I decided to have a look at the statistics. In its history, there have been twenty-four Shakespearean productions, including Joe Dowling’s upcoming Othello. Some of the artistic directors have had a bash: Dowling and Patrick Mason, for example, as well as other directors such as Jimmy Fay, Jason Byrne, and Wayne Jordan. But out of those numbers, only one woman has directed Shakespeare for the Abbey over 110 years of the theatre’s history: that’s Cartmell, who directed King Lear in 2013.

I’m not saying that men can’t direct feminist Shakespeare (in fact, Jordan must be applauded for his productions of Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet — the latter performed at the Gate — and their sensitivity towards patriarchial and heteronormative power structures). But only one female director, in so long a history? That’s embarrassing, really.

That needs to change. Feminism can reinvigorate Shakespearean performance, that’s clear. And there needs to be more room for women, for other genders, to explore how this can be possible. And on Thursday, the Abbey has the chance to make that space, because Irish Shakespeare performance, and Shakespeare performance in general, is not the provision of white cisgender men.

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