Shakespeare wrote nearly 40 plays, with over 1000 characters. Of those characters, only about 30 of them are women. Notable ones, anyway. And historically, a lot of those roles have even been played by men. Clearly, it’s always been tough for women to get a fair share of the work in this industry.
Things haven’t really improved much since then. The Australian’s Rosemary Neil reported in 2016: “Research by Screen Australia shows that of the feature films it backed between 2009 and 2014, only 15% were directed by women. 23% were written by women and 32% were produced by women, while a mere 28% had a female lead character.”
The Bechdel–Wallace test determines whether a film has any dialogue between two named female characters that isn’t about a man. Roughly half of films today pass. Unfortunately, that means that roughly half of our films don’t have any substantial dialogue between two female characters that isn’t about a man. What message does this send to our kids, particularly our girls? Are we seriously suggesting that we can just marginalise half of our population in our entertainment landscape like this? It’s a perfect example of something so exclusionary being so ubiquitous. Why should women get so few chances to do Shakespeare?
Recent events in Hollywood have shown that even leaving aside the way characters are cast and portrayed, the way that the actors are treated can also be a big problem. They are subject to the same predation that women experience all over the world every day. It is easy to unconsciously tolerate this dynamic, to go with the flow and accept it as just the way it is. But it is better to strive for equality.
So, sisters are doing it for themselves. SheShakespeare is a theatre company which has stepped up to counter that imbalance, by staging all female productions of some of the Bards most loved works, kicking off with “As You Like It”.
Look I don’t get to the theatre much these days, and can’t even remember the last time saw Shakespeare, but this seemed like a wonderfully approachable telling. The actors milked every drop of the comedy out of the text, adding flourishes where necessary in a way which didn’t detract from the source at all. Their expressions meant that they could have been speaking French, and we still would have understood the scenes simply due to the emotion of the sounds.
Charlie Tilelli stole several scenes with her outstanding physical comedy as the clown Touchstone, Kelly Robinson was achingly endearing as Orlando, Courtney Bell cute as a button as Celia. Cassady Maddox brought a calming poignancy to the melancholy of Jaques. Prudence Holloway’s dulcet tones perfectly accompanied her laidback strummings on the guitar, lofting softly through the background. Sonya Ker was firm as Duke Frederik and Laurne Dillon warm as his exiled brother Duke Senior. Amy Hack is a charming Rosalind, and a perhaps even more charming Ganymede.
The venue itself was interesting. It wasn’t so much a theatre, as a long narrow room, with the performers down one long edge and the audience in two rows on the other. It was the barest of bones and it felt wonderfully intimate. There was no lighting, no sound desk, barely a set to speak of beside a few boxes and some leaves and poetry tacked on the brick wall behind. It really let the material shine through the actors, rather than distracting us by dressing everything else up. It felt like that was how it was meant to be, left up to the imagination of the audience to set the rest of the scene. The chairs could have been a bit more comfortable, but hey.
As You Lie It is a great choice to play, as it already has a lot of gender swapping of roles in it. It is light-hearted and funny to begin with, and made more so when done right.
While we’re here, we may as well pre-empt what the idiots will say. Was it a gimmick? No. These were a dozen great actors playing roles they wouldn’t normally get a chance to play. Was it discriminatory? No. When we get to a point where a majority of characters in a majority of plays are women and then the imbalance continues to be perpetuated, then we can start that conversation. Until then, this is a welcome step to equality. Was this radical? Sure. It rocked. Go see it while you’ve got the chance.