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INTERVIEW: All-female Romeo and Juliet creatives talk collaboration and challenging the norms

With opinions on whether there is enough Shakespeare in theatres nowadays and whether there is anywhere else Shakespeare’s work can, or should, be taken, being somewhat divided – the decision to take on any of the Great Bard’s plays as an independent production is often a risky one. Do you appeal to the die-hard fans who recoil in horror at anything other than traditional, do you take it somewhere new or do you simply try to put on a good show?

This month, Hannah Ellis and Evelyn Roberts bring their collaborative, all-female version of Romeo and Juliet to Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester. Hannah, Evelyn and director Kaleigh Hawkins took some time out to chat to Nicole Craft about the production and the decisions behind it.

So, how did it all come about, why all-female and why Shakespeare? For Hannah, who originates from Australia and was looking forward to getting to do more of it when she moved to England, it was partly due to a gap in the market for quality Shakespeare productions in general and a dream of being able to cast more of the amazing women she sees coming through auditions. “I got to the stage where I was very frustrated that literally every single female that walked into an audition room was incredible, and usually, whatever I was casting at the time, there would be one or two parts and I could have literally cast every single one of these women but I could only use two of them… I started chatting to the amazing Kayleigh about it and we both have a love of Shakespeare so it all just kinda steamrolled from there really”. Kayleigh agrees, “I think it’s something we had been talking about for a while really, that we don’t see that much Shakespeare on the independent level around Manchester, and we were both quite surprised by it…We were talking about wanting to do some Shakespeare and it all tied in together that it should be all-female”. Evelyn, having seen and admired some of Hannah’s work, jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with both her and Kayleigh and with all three seeing collaboration as a way more exciting concept than competition, and GirlGang Manchester being chosen as an ideal presenter and enabler; the plan was formed.

Emily Dowson will play Romeo

It would be all too easy to jump to the conclusion that the ideas for an all-female production were part of a larger, #metoo-esque agenda, but, although the three agree it has been quite a timely, “sparky” coincidence, the ideas were forming well before the hashtag and there are no thoughts of continuing to make all-female productions being the answer to any inequalities. “It very quickly became much bigger than us”, Kayleigh explains. “We spoke a lot about the opportunities that some of our male peers have when they graduate from drama school and the training that an actor has, and how good we are trained to be at Shakespeare and sword-fighting and all those kind of things, it’s all on our CVs and then people graduate and don’t necessarily have the chance to use these skills…Our male peers, if there’s a Shakespeare production being put on, they may get one of the 12 roles that are in that and the women might have a chance to audition for one of the two or three roles. So it became this really gorgeous production where it was just all about ‘lets just make this happen for us and the other people we know that have gone through similar things’…it came with a good heart from the start really”.

For Evelyn, it was more of a ‘why not?’ decision and also one that could create opportunities for women beyond this production. “I’ve seen all-male Shakespeare in productions, it’s very much a done thing that you can have a cast of all one gender and the story still be really clear and audiences take as much from it as if it were mixed gender…We knew we were going to be inundated with really talented women, to the point where we have also created a new writing initiative called Unseemly Women, so as well as the 17 people who were cast in Romeo and Juliet we’ve also got 11 women as part of this new writing initiative which was sort of created, or birthed, in an attempt to write some new work with some really juicy, interesting parts for women and [then] see what happens.”

As the word equality implies, things have to be fair on both sides, so what might the men-folk in and out of the industry make of an all-female production? “My ideal situation is that they are not hesitant to come and watch it, and when they do come and watch it they go ‘that was a great show’”, Evelyn says. “Generally, we’ve had amazing support from loads of people we know from various backgrounds and genders – I’m hopeful we’ll get as much engagement from a male audience as we would a female audience”. Hannah is keen to agree and also points out that Shakespeare was originally all-male and therefore no heavy agenda is needed to defend wanting to flip things the other way.

Monica Sagar as Balthazar, Hannah Ellis as Mercutio, Emily Dowson as Romeo, Elaine McNicol as Benvolio and Roisin Brehony as Abraham

Hannah, Kayleigh and Evelyn all stress the importance of the roles taking whatever shape the actors feel they should for this production, there should be no preconceived ideas of gender or style past the point of keeping to the script and the emphasis is very much being placed on the actor being able to mould the role as theirs, rather than trying to be matched to a strict ideal. With Hannah and Evelyn taking on acting roles as well as producing, this is something they’ve had to think about from both sides of the fence, as Hannah explains: “Both Evelyn and I have produced many things and not acted in them and sometimes we’ve produced things and been part of them and I think, [with] something like this, there was just no way that we didn’t want to be a part of this amazing project. Producing is wonderful and it feels so good to enable great projects but it’s a bit of a thankless task sometimes…acting is a completely different passion”. “We each auditioned, we came in and did a half-hour slot, there was no negotiations about which parts we would or wouldn’t do. Kayleigh knew we wanted to be in it, we would have some sort of guaranteed role, but there was no conversation about what those parts would be”.

Evelyn Roberts as Tybalt, Eleni Varon as Sampson and Justina Aina as Gregory

For Kayleigh, directing the co-producers is far from the challenge it sounds; “Directing can be quite lonely, actually, so knowing that there are two producers in the room that have got such an understanding of the wider picture as well as the scene that we’re working on in that moment, it’s just a generally brilliant collaboration for everyone involved”. Despite the overall ease, Evelyn does add that there was a definite element of panic once they swapped to the other side of the casting desk for auditions, and how important it is to take off her producer hat when in the rehearsal room: “I’ve been part of an ensemble where I have probably not taken my producer hat off when I should have and didn’t enjoy the process as an actor, for me it would be a real shame if I was in the rehearsal room feeling like I was worrying about ‘how are we going to afford to print the posters?’ or ‘where are we going to source some set from?’ so I’m getting much better at switching off”.

The aim of every production is primarily to tempt as many bums on seats as possible, and this production of Romeo and Juliet is certainly no different from any other in that respect, but what else do the team hope to achieve with their all-female efforts? For Hannah, people having an amazing time and questioning why there isn’t more of this sort of thing happening and encouraging women in all parts of the industry is key; for Evelyn, it’s a celebration of the amazing actors and creatives they have been able to work with and to create “a really great piece of Shakespeare” where the quality of the enjoyment is separate from any gender-based judgement; and for Kayleigh, it’s about other creatives realising it’s okay to challenge the norms and break the rules occasionally, not just for fair representation across the board, but to create something “really fun and interesting on stage”.

The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet runs at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester from 25-29 June 2018. Tickets available here.

Nicole Craft | Images: Tom Barker Photography

The Reviews Hub - Features

Our Features team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The team is responsible for sourcing interviews, articles, competitions from across the country. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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