Shakespeare’s women, like his men, are as vivid to us as flesh-and-blood people. More vivid, indeed, because living people tend not to soliloquise their innermost thoughts. Consider Cleopatra, one of the four characters whom A.C. Bradley found ‘inexhaustible’ (along with Hamlet, Falstaff and Iago). The queen dominates her play utterly, and yet remains as unfathomable to the male theatre-goer as she obviously is to poor Antony. The template for every modern celebrity and reality TV star, she towers over her action-man lovers. Pompey, Caesar and Antony are famous for their achievements and for their tragic deaths; but, as Harold Bloom puts it, ‘she has and needs no achievements, her death is triumphant rather than tragic, and she forever is known best for being well known’.
How the lass unparalleled gestated in the mind of a male playwright is hard to explain. How that same mind conjured Viola and Olivia, Imogen and Isabella, Goneril and Gertrude, Miranda and Mistress Quickly, is completely beyond me.
Yet these roles are evidently not enough for the new artistic director of the Globe, Emma Rice. She is upset because most of Shakespeare’s lines are spoken by men, and she wants parity: ‘As somebody who has got custody of this canon for a while, I think it is quite interesting to say, yes, it is a target. How can we get the female voices through?’
By opening our ears. Shakespeare gives us the finest lines in this or any language: just let those lines do the talking. To pluck an example more or less at random, listen to Lady Macbeth’s appeal to her wavering husband:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
If there is a mother who can read those words aloud for the first time while holding her voice steady, I have yet to meet her. Playing Lady Macbeth plausibly, rather than as a pantomime villainess, is difficult enough. Playing Cleopatra in a way that acknowledges the queen’s histrionic qualities – acknowledges, in other words, the way Cleopatra is herself acting the role of Cleopatra – is perhaps the greatest challenge that the stage offers performers of either sex.
There are, of course, a great many ways to cast the 37 plays. Arguably the best Shakespeare company around at the moment is Edward Hall’s all-male troupe, Propeller, in which every character is played, as in the poet’s own day, by one of 13 actors. Conversely, the most thought-provoking Richard II I’ve seen on stage was Fiona Shaw’s. There is a sound reason to have a woman playing that mercurial monarch – as Cate Blanchett, among others, has also done. It deliberately draws attention to Richard II’s feminine personality. I say ‘feminine’ rather than ‘effeminate’: male actors who camp up the part tend to fare disastrously. The finest Richard IIs – Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic in 2005 will always stand out for me – are those who allow the king’s inner poetess to shine through.
It doesn’t work in every role, though. Emma Rice says that she sees no reason why Gloucester in King Lear shouldn’t be a woman. Well, OK, but, rather than just asking ‘why not?’ we should surely ask ‘why?’ Gloucester, like Lear, is introduced to us as a father – a father with difficult children. If you want to maternalise him, you ought to be going somewhere with the idea. It might work: when Vanessa Redgrave played Prospero in 2000, the utter devotion which you’d expect between a parent and child on an island with no other human beings came across more strongly than I’ve seen before or since. I doubt Gloucester’s relationship with Edmund and Edgar could sustain the same treatment, but you never know.
The point is, if you want to offer your audience a female Gloucester or an ugly Cleopatra or a thin Falstaff or a black Iago, you ought to be saying something about the play, not about yourself. I happened to see the same black Iago as Emma Rice last year: Lucian Msamati, who plays Salladhor Saan in Game of Thrones. It was a superb performance, but it couldn’t compensate for the fact that the play was wretchedly over-produced, with scenes involving water-boarding and rap music and every kind of technical whizz-bang. Iago’s blackness served little dramatic purpose. It was just one more curiosity, like the water-feature in the middle of the stage. As so often happens, the director had insisted on placing his own ego between the audience and the text thus ensuring that, wherever we sat in the theatre, we got an obstructed view.
This shouldn’t need saying but, when you’re entrusted with the finest drama fashioned by human intelligence, you should let it breathe, not tie it into the corset of your prejudice.
What goes for the casting goes for the production. We don’t demand Elizabethan dress; we just want producers to understand that they are fashioning settings for priceless gems rather than ornaments to be admired in themselves.
A good producer knows how to be original without being a cleverdick. For example, I’ve seen Coriolanus set in everything from Meiji Japan to 1990s Yugoslavia. Again, there is solid purpose behind such staging. The characters in Coriolanus, as in all Shakespeare’s Roman plays, are acting according to a moral code that is markedly different from the audience’s. When a seventeenth-century theatre-goer saw the curtain rise on togas and sandals, he thought: ‘These people don’t have my values, because they are living without Christ’s truth’. Plainly, that is not the reaction of most modern theatre-goers, so a skilled producer must find a different way to convey the idea of an honour-based warrior society.
“As well a woman with an eunuch play’d as with a woman”, says the royal wench. We’re not asking for doublets and hose and literal interpretations. We want to see the director’s full imaginative genius. We just want to know that the lesser genius is at the service of the greater – indeed, of the greatest.