Hannah Brewer is here this week with the latest in Shakespeare news from The Isle Of Wight as part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare Coverage.
Shakespeare and Gender will forever be a subject of debate and discovery. His representation of the female role in society comes under careful surveillance from literary scholars and theatre practitioners alike. While some maintain that Shakespeare was an advocate for female dominance and liberty, others note that even Shakespeare’s powerful female heroines are plagued with the constraints and views of the Early Modern era.
As the debate rages on, the theatre continues to embrace the notion of gender swapping significant roles. While this is absolutely not an entirely new idea, it remains a topic of great interest to contemporary directors. Famously, and controversially, the 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt became the first actress to appear on film as the troubled young Danish Prince, Hamlet. Bernhardt, and the actresses that predated her, became advocates for the theatrical emancipation of women. Since then, the theatre can boast numerous occasions in which women have stepped into a predominantly male role.
Colourised still from Le duel d’Hamlet (1899) starring Sarah Bernhardt
In the media lately there has been a lot of focus on gender and Shakespeare, with large scale productions choosing to thrust women into the driving seat. The Isle of Wight has also begun the exploration into the role women have within Shakespeare’s work.
A recent production of Hamlet, staged by Origins Theatre Company, saw the titular character’s fatal nemesis Laertes played by a woman. The dynamic immediately changed and the revengeful nature of Laertes’ return to Denmark developed additional layers. Though forceful and determined in her actions, the female Laertes shows a side of natural feminine care at the loss of her father and a motherly like protective attitude towards her sister. Moments like this made changes not only to the way in which the play worked, but also to the audience’s perceptions of characters and actions.
Perhaps a more radical move was the Isle of Wight Shakespeare Company’s (IWSC) decision to rewrite the role of Don John, in their 1920’s inspired Much Ado About Nothing, to the poisonous and striking Isabelle. Don John, the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, is motivated by his lack of social status and failing to obtain military success. The IWSC transformed the role. Isabelle, unhappy with the social conventions that dictate her position as a woman, begins to manipulate the male members of the cast, eventually bringing Chaos to the ensuing wedding celebrations. In their upcoming production of Henry IV, the IWSC have begun looking at the relationship between Hal and a female Falstaff.
This year, the Isle of Wight (IOW) will also see an all-female production of Macbeth, under the direction of local director Joe Plumb. Whatever the motivation behind casting women in predominantly male led parts, the IOW has become one more to join forces with its theatrical brothers and sisters in challenging Shakespearean representations of gender equality.