Lindsay Dukes, Artistic Director - 07/01/16
Shakespeare, and the reason why he’s good, I think, is because he writes characters that are so universal that for as long as I’ve been educated enough to understand what the hell he’s going on about, I’ve felt an enormous gratitude at being able to read, see and sometimes even play these people who, for me at least, transcend time, age, experience while still somehow managing to gouge their way into my private experience.
It’s like what Hector says in Alan Bennett’s History Boys,
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
For me, and I’m assuming for a lot of the world considering how many bums on seats the RSC boasts, Shakespeare resonates. Big time. In her self-written performance, ‘Shakespeare and The Alchemy of Gender’ Lisa Wolpe tells us that, “if you place two Stradivarius violins in opposite corners of the room and pluck the A string of one, the other will start to vibrate in sympathy” — if you’re lucky enough to know what ‘thou’ means, Shakespeare’s characters seem to resonate personally and universally with what it really means to be a living human person. Person.
“What a piece of work is a man.”
He means person. He does. Hamlet is a person. He’s struggling to be a ‘man’ along with most of the men I know today. But he’s definitely a person. There are so many women who’ve played Hamlet, most famously: Charlotte Charke, Sarah Bernhardt, Asta Nielsen, Frances de la Tour, Ruth Mitchell, Angela Winkler, Abke Haring and of course, most recently Maxine Peake. Why? Because Hamlet is a person. A person who, certainly from my perspective seems to embody a far more stereotypically female struggle: Can I act, should I act, am I allowed to act? What if I screw up? Have I thought this through? It’s odd, I suppose when you consider that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 today that it’s Ophelia who drowns herself…Hamlet thinks about it but Ophelia’s the one who does it. For me, this play is begging to be re-gendered.
As a female actor, I consider myself lucky to have played several Shakespearian heroines, and there have been moments when I’ve known the words in my mouth are the ones making the audiences’ hearts resonate: like when Isabella enforces morality,
“Go to your bosom;
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault”
or when Juliet articulates love,
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”
Unfortunately however, more often than not as a female performer of Shakespeare, I find myself being dragged across the stage as Lavinia or paraded in the brothel as Marina while Beatrice’s exclamation:
“Oh God that I were a man!”
pounds in my head far more aggressively than the tepid, two lines of metre I’ve memorised that usually end up getting shouted over anyway (not that I’m bitter!)
In her show, Lisa tells us that she began dressing as a boy for protection and as a means of defence, she felt threatened presenting as feminine; she hid. Later, cross-dressing as Shakespeare’s leading men became a means for her to access power in a world where women are so often awarded so little, she found a voice and a command by presenting as male. I get that, I’ve had my hands and tongue cut out while the only other woman on stage is busy eating her own children - I get that.
But in contrast to Lisa’s experience, I am a young, openly pan-sexual person, living in a very liberal London, taking my clothes off during Pride, and receiving 100 likes on my Facebook wall every time I post an article about trans rights. As a feminist and a close witness to male depression, anxiety and suicide, I am a deep believer and advocate of gender equality, and as a by-product, nurtured by the liberalness of my upbringing, I find that conforming to, and promoting gender binaries is deeply detrimental to any kind of equalitarian progress.
We do not need to reinforce what society has pushed on us - we need to challenge it. In the same way that we no longer accept the prosecution of one particular race over another it is our duty to continue to look beyond what is skin deep. Furthermore, if we continue to remain rigid in our understanding of men and women then what hope do those beautiful people in-between have? Obsessing over our biological and vocal differences does not champion acceptance and openness, it is a profoundly superficial focal point - and we are not profoundly superficial. Hamlet is not profoundly superficial. None of them are, because they are still resonating, and their words deserve to be spoken by a multitude of people in a multitude of tonal and physical variants.
We are slowly beginning to understand that we can transcend gender categories if we want to. With the help of public (and incredibly sexy) figures like Ruby Rose, Laverne Cox and RuPaul we are starting to not only accept but welcome gender fluidity into the melting pot of humanity as an important, very real variant and strength. Lisa proves in her show that a woman has the capacity to express everything a man does. Now let’s take it one step further, instead of a woman playing a man with agency, let’s see a woman play a woman with agency or a man playing a man with less space and more fragility or one of those beautiful people in between playing Hamlet. I feel Shakespeare would be on board with that…
“Unsex me here” Lady Macbeth
“Think you I am no stronger than my sex?” Portia, Julius Caesar
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” Hamlet