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ED FRINGE BLOG: Searching For Shakespeare – Gender Play

Tom GilesOkay, so blogging is harder that I hard first realised, especially, in the headlights of the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Edinburgh Fringe.

For my third scribbling on Shakespeare’s presence here, I’ve been drawn to the women who are using him as inspiration and fuel to create their own projects. As ever with Edinburgh there are a plethora of brave individuals presenting solo work but the first to grab my eye, in part for her fantastic poster image, is Emma Bentley of the newly formed joue le genre Theatre Co. who are presenting the new show, To She or not to She

Having clashing show schedules has turned out in part to be a blessing, in this case, as what I was most keen to avoid in this blog is turning myself into any kind of reviewer. That is not why I’m here, and I am therefore writing this before catching the show; which is incidentally currently grabbing fists full of stars at Pleasance Courtyard. The show is co-written and directed Holly Robinson

‘Frailty thy name is woman?! Oh get stuffed, Will!‘ is the strapline, and anyone who is willing to fly in the face of the big Bill himself, is OK by me…much as I love him.

I caught up with Emma and her dynamo producer, Leonie Webb, to chat about the process and why it was important to them to present and produce this work.

EB – “The show [To She, or not to She] began as the evolution of a critical paper focusing on the performative nature of gender, that I wrote during my final year at LIPA. It was a real eye-opener to be discovering, as an actor, the way, which now seems obvious, that we all perform our genders through our clothes, language, contextual choices (etc) and I wanted to see what light could be shed on the plays [of Shakespeare] if I approached them with this in mind.”

Having played in all-male productions of ‘Much Ado…’ (Hero), and ‘Merchant…’ (Jessica), the gender-blind, or perhaps obsessed, approach to casting has always interested me. Emma and I chatted about the various ways playing your opposing gender can be tackled, and it was interesting to see that, broadly, there seem to be three approaches.

Firstly, Playing the rôle Naturalistically ‘as’ that opposite gender, as I had been directed to do in the past. Anyone who saw Samuel Barnet’s masterfully detailed performances in the Mark Rylance led productions over the last few years will instantly understand what I mean.

Last week I managed to catch – the all female – Smooth Faced Gents Theatre Co. and their Titus this is also their approach; to square their shoulders, drop their voices and be men; with interesting and moving results.

Then there is the equally embraced ‘I am my own gender, playing this part’. This has been done to wonderful effect, particularly by Propeller Theatre, dir. Ed Hall. Their stubbly, butch portrayals are certainly different, but no less meticulous.

Emma and I discussed this and she described a big epiphany came when working through various ensemble, devising exercises; how different it is at various points to add the dynamic of taking on the character of a male friend. Suddenly her success rate was multiplying at an incredible rate! Whatever else this may say about entrenched attitudes, it is certainly a fascinating way to liberate ones self when approaching a character who you are building, from scratch.

In my own experience the freedom to inhabit someone of your choice and then project-specific aspects of them can be very freeing, and is often one of the most exciting parts of building a character.

The final approach must be, therefore, charting a new course and finding a way to balance these two approaches. Re-framing the plays contextually can achieve this brilliantly and was presented with characteristic class by the recent all-female Donmar Warehouse productions of Julius Caesarand Henry IVboth directed by Phyllida Lloyd. This is a much more bespoke way of addressing the plays and I have only seen it pulled off successfully, when presented as one-off productions, rather than a ‘season’, and produced with enough support to allow this approach to bear fruit without it being forced to ripen.

I know there are far more articulate and more highly qualified writers than I engaging with this subject but from my #Edfringe perspective it seems thus…

The performative nature of gender is addressed, by women, in many of Shakespeare’s plays; although originally, of course, it would’ve been a boy, playing a girl playing a man, [un]naturally. Now however, it feels that in work such as To She, or not to Shethe imbalance of quality female rôles is not being only redressed with the flourishing of new plays and parts but homage to the great people who populate the stories is also being paid. Shakespeare is providing fertiliser for fresh stories by the decomposition of his own. Viva Will, and viva WOMEN.

Tom Giles

Both shows perform daily at The Pleasance Beyond

The Party Planners Wife at 12:40 &The Pie Makers Tale at 13:40

About The Reviews Hub - Scotland

The Reviews Hub - Scotland
The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.