The Smooth Faced Gentlemen are an all-female company of actors formed in 2012 that broke new ground with their innovative production of Titus Andronicus at the Buxton Festival Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe in 2013.
The show received rave reviews and now the Gents are back, this time taking their Titus to Greenwich Theatre for a week-long run. The Shakespeare Standard caught up with Ashlea Kaye (artistic director and co-founder), Yaz Al-Shaater (director and co-founded), and Ariane Barnes (playing Titus) to learn more about the Smooth Faced Gents philosophy and how they translated Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy to the modern stage.
The Shakespeare Standard (TSS): How did the Smooth Faced Gentlemen start out?
Ashlea: We (the founders) were watching King John at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) where Pippa Nixon was playing the Bastard. It was really interesting for us to see a female in that very male part.
We went to the pub afterwards and had a chat about that, and at one point on the founders said they had heard an actress complaining about all-male companies, how it was really unfair that they were out there doing all-male performances. The rest of us said its no unfair that they’re doing it and insteas of moaning it thought: ‘why not do something to tackle it?’ From there we got onto the topic of an all-female Shakespeare company and for different reasons all of us got really excited about putting that together.
We continued to get drunk and woke up the next day and one of us said: “did you remember that conversation last night?” and we all said: “yeah! Let’ go away and research it and do it!”
TSS: What excited you personally about forming an all-female Shakespeare company?
Yaz: For me it was an opportunity to explore Shakespeare more and approach the plays with fresh eyes. I come from an alternative theatre background, so I was looking for ways to make an audience step away from what they are used and become more open to new ideas. This idea struck a chord because of a desire to explore our somewhat troubled relationship with gender. Even now in these supposed enlightened times we as a society, as individuals, still have a mixed relationship with gender. There’s so much we need to understand and figure out. This was a way to explore gender without being too preachy.
Ashlea: Every time I had done Shakespeare in training, I’d watch all these men get all these amazing roles and think: when am I going to get a chance to get my teeth into these amazing male characters? I felt quite sad thinking that would never happen. So the opportunity to give women the chance to tell these stories really excited me.
TSS: Describe the experience of playing male characters as a female actor
Ariane: Titus is an epic role, and what it’s done to me as an actor is it has forced me to ground myself in a way like no female character I’ve played. I’m planted, I feel powerful, and to be honest there just are not many female roles that do that.
All the Shakespearean parts I’ve played in the past have been the big, powerful roles, such as Lady Macbeth. While they are powerful roles, that power comes predominantly from their sexuality. When you play a man, I feel there isn’t that expectation from me. It’s just pure power and I don’t have to apologise for it.
Ashlea: We’re always asking along the way: “are we acting a certain way because of the gender of the character or because of who they are as a person?” So Ariane says she feels rooted playing Titus- is that because Titus is rooted for who he is as a solider, or is that because he’s a man? The idea is to get each actor to think like a man rather than act like a man.
Yaz: We do a lot of work at the start of the process to explore physical perceptions of gender and try and root that in an idea of the person rather than defining them by their genitals. It’s fascinating to see how different actors come to understand and then fight perceptions of how their gender affects their movement. We conduct a mental exploration of the physical aspects of being a man, by making the actors move in their own bodies but imagining they are in another, male, one without showing it. We explore that with guided mental exercises and movement exercises, and then gradually that work evolves into a focus on the individual characters so the cast can slowly click their minds into who these people are.
Ashlea: In some ways you can’t escape your gender as an actor. Look at Titus as an example. There’s a scene where it’s the funeral of his sons after their death in war. Immediately Ariane has got to connect that scene to a moment of grief in her life or potentially use somebody else’s experience, and she would react differently from how a man would in that situation. Ariane will never know exactly how a man will respond to that situation, so there is that feminity that does subtly carry through which is really nice because it allows an audience to see a character behave in a way they haven’t seen before.
TSS: How do you break down people’s preconceptions of what an all-female Shakespeare play will be like?
Yaz: One of our stated aims is to have a style that is nothing to do with the gender of the actors. People come along to our shows thinking: ‘since it’s all female I’ll probably notice some sensitivity in the characters I haven’t seen before, and there will be more of this and less that,’ and in some cases thinking: ‘I don’t think this is going to work’. Then five minutes into the production they forget they are being played by women, just like five minutes in they forget that backdrop on the stage isn’t a real brick wall, and five minutes in they tune into the language of Shakespeare.
In itself, that is a gender statement: the sex of the actors isn’t as big a deal as you think it is. We’re all people, we’re all storytellers.
TSS: Why did you choose to perform Titus Andronicus?
Yaz: Titus was one of our favourites early on after our first production [Romeo and Juliet]. Three things stuck out for us that made us think it was right.
First of all, it is a very masculine play. The characters talk about masculinity and honour in an interchangeable way. It’s testosterone-fuelled, there’s killing after killing, rape, murder, and slaughter, so that was something we were excited to explore in terms of gender versus character.
The second thing was actually the two female characters in the play are so intriguing, and so often these parts are played in a particular way. Often Tamora is one stereotype of femininity – the evil queen, the mother, the prostitute – and Lavinia is another; a damsel in distress. Breaking those moulds was exciting for us.
The third reason is because the play is hysterical! What is key to our work with Shakespeare, especially the tragedies, is the comedy that can be found within them All of Shakespeare’s plays are a little ridiculous, and that irreverence and ludicrousness fits our style.
Ariane: One thing the Gents have done is they’ve condensed the play. Their edits have turned the story into a real rollercoaster packed into an hour and a bit, and if you follow that then you let go of what the play should be and get rid of those preconceptions of how Shakespeare should be performed.
TSS: What relevance does Titus Andronicus have to modern audiences?
Ariane: On a human level, I think it’s completely applicable. Because for every person there are times in your life when you think: “oh my god, is this ever going to stop? It’s just one thing after another” and that’s life! For me that’s the thing that makes it relevant today, because I can identify with that struggle.
Yaz: We can all identify with that. When you’re faced with such horror and grief, like Titus is, there is a desire to look at the ridiculousness of it all. Titus is so self-aware of the ridiculousness going on around him, he looks at it a bit with a smirk and a moan, and that’s actually a very modern approach to grief.
Titus Andronicus is playing at the Greenwich Theatre April 28 – May 2. Tickets are available here