London and UK theatre certainly has a progressive inclination, but there is only one all-female Shakespeare company in the city, Smooth Faced Gentlemen. They’re also the only all-female Shakespeare company in the whole of the UK, and their work is getting a lot of attention for it. Several months ago, Shakespeare Standard London co-editor Louie Woodall interviewed the Gents about their then-current production and what led them to starting the company. They make excellent theatre, and their profile is on the rise, but I have often wondered why there aren’t any other all-female Shakespeare companies around. There are several all-male: Propeller, The Handlebards, and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men spring to mind immediately, and there may be others. Smooth Faced Gentlemen aren’t the only theatre company producing recent all-female Shakespeare, though. In the West End, director Phyllida Lloyd’s 2014 Henry IV and 2013 Julius Caesar received much acclaim, and Fringe companies regularly dabble in all-female Shakespeare. I spoke to London-based fringe theatre companies Get Over It Productions, an all-female theatre company that regularly produces Shakespeare, and Lazarus Theatre Company, a prolific classical theatre company, about the importance of presenting all-female Shakespeare within their regular programme of work.
TSS: Generally speaking, what inspires your Shakespeare production concepts?
Get Over It: The concepts come from our Artistic Director, Paula Benson. She usually has an idea or vision for a piece that just ‘comes’ to her and then she teams up with assistant director Velenzia Spearpoint who runs with it, with great aplomb. Once the concept is refined and determined, the inspiration comes from whatever era it is set in, particularly the art, music, fashion and socio-political themes of that period. So far, we have produced a silent movie-style Romeo & Juliet, a glam rock Macbeth, a neo-geisha A Midsummer Night’s Dream, psychedelic Twelfth Night set in 1969 and, currently, a Victorian-Gothic The Tempest.
Lazarus artistic director Ricky Dukes: It always begins with the text. Often a concept jumps out through a setting or time period, making a path to how we might stage the play. Though the urge to reinvestigate, to retell, must be present. If that presents itself, we go for it.
We always look for a play that has an opportunity to reinvent itself, that we think has something we can expose, something we didn’t see before. Finally, we look for an epic that takes us to a place that we can get lost in, and an incredible story.
TSS: What, in your experience, does using an all-female cast bring to a production that all-male or mixed casts don’t?
GOI: We didn’t set out to be an all-female theatre company; it just happened that way but it means we get to play all the parts. The fact we’re a women is neither here nor there. We just play the characters. The rehearsal room is the same. It’s where we nurture trust, immerse ourselves in the ensemble, revel in ‘total theatre’, foster confidence, function as a family and positively encourage howls of raucous laughter.
Dukes: As with any change in casting against the norm, an all-female company offers a fantastic opportunity to re-examine and explore a text. The company of our all-female Henry V challenged what we think a Shakespearean history should be: a stereotype of loud, shouty men displaying masculinity, which is really just a hangover from a long legacy of male dominated theatre. For me [an all-female cast] was a revelation, for many it was a step to far.
Our Henry offered a reflective take on war, with a precise tactical approach. The scene in which Henry threatens the women of Harfleur with rape and the children with instant death was even more terrifying from the mouth of a woman.
It’s also about opportunity. All-female companies that play roles as men misses the point, in my view.
In rehearsal an all-female company has more to prove, more opportunity and more to lose. It’s exciting. You feel like you’re on the crest of a wave, on the breech of something truly new. It’s wonderful. Women bring a different outlook and perspective. It isn’t always appropriate or successful, but I find it exciting and invigorating.
These companies have different approaches to their work, but both find the opportunity to explore the text from a female perspective results in new perspectives on classic stories. Clearly both audiences and theatre-makers find this exciting, so why are there no other companies in the whole of focusing on this exclusively?
I don’t know, but I hope the infectious enthusiasm from the likes of Smooth Faced Gentlemen, Ricky Dukes, and Get Over It Productions inspires more theatre makers to explore Shakespeare and the classics through all-female productions and gender-blind casting. Not only will it open up new views on these ancient stories, but it will grant more opportunities for female performers to play these great roles. When I asked Get Over It Productions what they hoped their audiences would take away from their all-female work, their answer was simple:
Indubitably, our primary desire is for our audiences to have a cracking night at the theatre, submerged in a netherworld of imaginings and filled with the thrills and spills of the collective live experience. Surely, after all is said and done – the play’s the thing.