Monica Nash, Company Member - 01/11/15
I suppose my first reaction to the idea of gender-swapping Shakespeare was, as many people's might be, 'Oh, this is a gimmick. Not one for the purists'. I thought it would be fun, a bit silly, a bit politically correct, I would get to play some cool parts that I'd always wished I could play, and that would be about it.
We began simply with play-readings, and quibbled endlessly and entertainingly about whether we should change the names from 'Claudio' to 'Claudia' and what on earth to do with the pronouns.
So far so good, but I had my doubts about it all. Wouldn't it all look a bit silly? Girls waving swords around while men talked about corsets? I couldn't get over the idea that if Shakespeare meant the part to be a particular gender, he probably knew best.
It wasn't till we started getting it on its feet – where Shakespeare rightfully belongs – that I began to realise I was looking at this thing from quite the wrong angle. A couple of weeks of playing Benedick and Don John and Richard III brought something home to me: if you reassign the gender of a character, you are not adding something extra that wasn't there.
You are simply forced to put aside your mental image of who this character is, and focus purely on the text. Go back to basics. The question is, as it always should be, 'What does this character want? And how do they go about getting it?' NOT: 'Right, this character is now female. How does that change how I play this?'
I began to see as we went along that you shouldn't assume that there is an accepted way of playing a scene, then adapt it to fit a different gender – just play it. The changes – and it will be different, for sure – began to emerge naturally as we went along, and worked best when I didn't plan them, and just let them happen.
The crystallising moment of this was playing the scene between Lady Anne and Richard with the genders reversed. It was one of those moments when I realised that what we were doing wasn't just playing Shakespeare – we were squeezing the text, and all sorts of lovely things were coming out.
Richard is a master manipulator, and, in a particularly risky move, he bares his throat to Anne, gives her a sword, and tells her to run him through. Of course she doesn't, and he picks away at her mercy until she hasn't got a leg left to stand on. It's an extraordinary scene however you play it. But playing Richard as a fairly petite woman, opposite a 6ft bearded Canadian Lady Anne, as I happened to be doing, the sheer bravado of Richard becomes so much more heightened.
A woman offering her neck to a very strong, very angry man and telling him to kill her, is confident almost to the point of lunacy. For a teetering, breathtaking moment, it was a distinct possibility that Richard was going to get snapped like a twig. Is this danger present in the scene when you have the original genders? Yes, obviously. But swapping the genders made it better, more exciting. Richard was cleverer, riskier, madder - Anne was more tortured, more merciful, more interesting! How did that happen?!
Matt and I got to explore this dynamic in greater detail when we were cast as Goneril and Albany in our scratch performance of 'Lear'. Their scene in Act IV is spectacularly well written, even by Shakespeare's standards. The more we examined the language, the more interesting titbits we found. How can a male Goneril tell his wife that she has 'a cheek for blows' without raising the possibility of past abuse? Goneril is now shielded from Albany's blazing wrath by his 'man's shape' because Albany knows that, however much she may want to 'dislocate and tear his flesh and bones', she's no physical match for him. We weren't trying to shoe-horn these things in. We just read the scene and realised that they were there, waiting for us.
I really hope that what we are doing keeps developing, and that gender-reversed Shakespeare becomes a more widely-watched way of performing his plays. For me it's not necessarily about making a statement about gender roles – although there are plenty of interesting ones to be made. And it's not about messing around with the plays either. It's about using a bit of imagination to find new things to explore in them. And honestly, we've only scratched the surface. There's so much more to be found.