Matt McFetridge, Company Member - 28/10/15
When the Reversed Shakespeare Company began, it was a series of workshops that were mostly being run out of people’s flats. If we were really lucky, someone would have a connection to a theatre or school somewhere, and we could use a space in there. In fact, the first workshop I attended personally was in someone’s parents’ house, and we were all drinking wine and doing scenes from Much Ado About Nothing. The National Theatre Studio this was not.
However, what we did have was an idea that we wanted to explore, and, most importantly, committed to. That being, across the board, we would flip the genders in whichever Shakespeare play, or plays, we were looking at that night. Sometimes we talked about placing the plays in certain periods: some imagined, some real; other times, we were just actors having a play.
But the rule was consistent: we would flip the genders of every character across the board, read through the scenes, put them on their feet, and see what we could discover. We were just trying things out, and more than anything, I was just happy to be working on something.
Although gender equality is hardly a new debate, it’s swelled to the forefront of culture in recent years, and people are less afraid than ever to actually explore what gender means. Couple that with the increasing fluidity of gender definition in contemporary times, and the idea of exploring that feels not only appropriate, but necessary, even vital.
Gender, in a very dated and misguided way, still comes off as black and white: there are men, and there are women; one comes from Mars, the other from Venus. But the reason I not only kept coming back to these workshops, but was actually ecstatic about each new meeting, was how arbitrary gender really is, especially in Shakespeare. I will expand on this.
Now one may argue, ‘But our gender says so much about us, who we are, how we behave!’ No. This is nonsense. Gender is a societally imposed concept. What working with this company showed me was that people are people.
The very first read I did was a scene from Much Ado About Nothing, with Margaret, Hero, and Beatrice, the morning of Hero’s wedding to Claudio. In the scene, I played Margaret. I looked at this scene, and tried my best to forget the fact that I was playing a woman, because I wasn’t. Remember? We’d flipped the genders. Sure, my name was Margaret, but what’s in a name? Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively named their daughter James. For a scene, I could imagine myself as a man named Margaret.
All I had to do then was just examine this scene. The morning of a wedding, and my friend is getting married, I’m complimenting his outfit. I’ve been in that situation many times (minus the wedding), helping a friend pick an outfit, talking to him about someone he loves, this is normal, typical, even banal behaviour, regardless of gender.
When Beatrice enters, he is obviously lovesick about Benedick. So, naturally, my character does what any good friend would do, and proceeds to make fun of him. Again, regardless of gender, this is relatable behaviour. There was no need to ‘play a woman’, or be camp, or try to find some bridge between man and woman; it was just reading the character on the page.
In that moment, I understood the brilliance of Shakespeare. He didn’t write men and women, he just wrote people. Yes, he wrote far more male characters than female, but in his time, women couldn’t legally be on stage. If that wasn’t the case, I can guarantee there would’ve been far more women in Shakespeare. The man could capture people in all their complexities and ambiguities so that when you give yourself over to his words, they come out natural and truthful. Man or woman, the characters are just people, and we can all relate to being a person.
So right then, my very first workshop, I was hooked on this idea. Especially now, every play, every scene had to be reinterpreted, reapproached in a completely different light.
Sure, every actor has an idea about who Benedick is, but Beatrice? All of a sudden you’re playing a part you never expected! And guess what? It’s still easy to tap into, because Beatrice wants the exact same things. We get so wrapped up in gender that we forget we’re all just trying to get by existing.
The political issues are obvious, and still frustratingly outdated. Should women have more opportunities on stage? Of course. Will this company provide that? Quite obviously, yes. Is that the point of this company? Not at all, the point is to explore Shakespeare in a new way. It’s only by letting go of tradition and taking risks, bold risks, that we can discover new depths in the Bard’s work. We can keep exploring that question of existence, of what it means to be human.
‘Purists’ will probably call work like this blasphemy: women speaking a man’s words? Oh, the horror! They’re right, we should keep the women safe in the audiences, preferably far back so we don’t disrupt their delicate dispositions!
Why does this argument still happen? It’s old, it’s tired, it’s deeply rooted in sexism, and even worse, it’s boring. Women, men, it doesn’t matter, we’re all just people! Besides, Shakespeare’s influence and legacy is bigger than all of us. And maybe, just maybe, we can find something new in this, something that speaks to us in way we’ve never heard before.
When working on King Lear with Derek Jacobi, Michael Grandage said that (and believe me, I am paraphrasing), when one works on a play as great and as monumental and mammoth as this, all you can ever hope to do is just scratch the surface. So let’s keep scratching.