Jean Apps, Actor - 26/01/16
To be part of Reversed Shakespeare's staging of ‘Lear’ was an undreamed of opportunity for me as an older actor.
Playing Lear as a woman was an exciting, challenging, frustrating and emotional experience. It was exciting because of the chance to work with an amazingly creative team of people and to get to play the iconic role of Lear and speak some of those wonderful lines (e.g. "O, reason not the need: Our basest beggars/Are in the poorest things superfluous"). It was challenging because of the demands of the role and the weight of its cultural history. It was frustrating because I was only too aware of having just scratched the surface of the part; as soon as the performance was over, I was dying to have another go - preferably in a full production of the play with loads of rehearsal time and a run of at least three weeks (oh, and Arts Council funding)!
It was an emotional experience, because in my own life I had cared for my mother, who suffered from dementia, as she gradually changed from being a strong, dynamic woman to a vulnerable shadow of her former self - though her old self would still occasionally flash out. In some ways it was like playing my mother. I was able to feel something of Lear's growing disorientation (in relation to her own identity as well as her surroundings), her feelings of insecurity and fear of being deceived, taken advantage of, mocked. I felt, too, Lear's acquisition of a new, stripped-to-the-bone kind of authenticity through her descent into madness, a process which peels away her delusions and pretensions.
Playing the powerful, demanding, egocentric (but incipiently needy and self-doubting) Lear that we see early in the play I found more problematic. This was not because of any difficulty in accessing rage and selfishness within myself (no problem!) but in attempting to endow a 'Queen' Lear with a sense of absolute authority and entitlement, which an actor playing a 'King' Lear is perhaps, for cultural reasons, better able to do for the audience. I'm not sure about this - perhaps it simply depends on the quality of the acting in both cases.
Elizabeth I, who was often on my mind whilst I was involved in this project, illustrates how exercising authority, over both men and women, was (and to some extent still is in our society) more difficult for women, because of cultural expectations largely based on Scriptural teachings. She was well aware that being female increased the insecurity of her position as sovereign and she feared the threat to her autonomy that any marriage would bring. She often referred to herself as a prince or king, emphasising her anointing by God, but she also cleverly exploited her femaleness in the promotion of her image as The Virgin Queen, dedicated solely to her people. In her rousing speech to her troops at Tilbury she referred to herself as having the body of "a weak, feeble woman" yet also "the heart and stomach of a king" and therefore the courage to fight and spill her own blood for her people.
None of us in our society today, male or female, has the experience of living in the opposite of a patriarchal society (the term 'matriarchal' doesn't quite fit here - I think it has softer connotations). I mean a society in which the female rather than the male is the norm and only the female is able to represent/be an icon for humanity as a whole; a society where the male is the often-oppressed 'other' and where the highest echelons of power - in government, the judiciary, the established Church, the armed forces, the police, organised crime, the world of finance and big business etc. - are dominated by women. 'Masculine' qualities in such a society would be those deemed 'feminine' in our current patriarchal society and vice versa, since 'masculinity' and 'femininity' are culturally prescriptive rather than simply descriptive terms; they help to determine through conditioning who has power and agency and who is subject to that power and is required to adapt to it (How about trying: "His voice was ever soft,/Gentle and low, an excellent thing in man"?).
We can do our best to imagine such a reversed state of affairs but we have no control over our own unconscious gender conditioning. This conditioning affects how we as actors in reversed-gender productions play our parts - and how we react to the other characters on stage - as well as affecting the reactions of the audience. The physicality of the characters on stage, their relative height and muscularity and their vocal qualities, also plays a part in how we hear and interpret the text and understand the power dynamics between the characters.
Gender-reversed productions of Shakespeare, whilst broadening the range of work that actors of both genders, particularly women, can do (and giving us a lot of fun in the process!), can also help actors and audience alike - as things jar, confuse or surprise us - to become more aware of our own gender conditioning. This enables us to exercise more conscious choice in the way we present ourselves in the world and how we behave towards people of a different sex or sexual-orientation.
Many thanks once again, Lindsay, Cassie and Matt, for giving me an unforgettable experience and may the Reversed Shakespeare Company go from strength to strength!