The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0468 Monday, 7 October 2013
Date: Monday, October 7, 2013
Subject: All Women’s Julius Caesar
From The New York Times
October 4, 2013
Once More Into the Breeches
By Alexis Soloski
Is there a classic play more macho than Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”? A tragedy of men’s frustrations, desires and actions, it offers just two small speaking roles for women. The word “men” occurs 54 times in the script, more than in any other Shakespeare play.
The word “women”? Just four mentions.
But that doesn’t trouble the director Phyllida Lloyd. Her version of “Julius Caesar,” which opens on Wednesday at St. Ann’s Warehouse, is set in a women’s prison and features an all-female cast. A rejoinder to frequent all-male productions, like the Shakespeare’s Globe renditions of “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III,” both soon to open on Broadway, it reclaims meaty parts and muscular verse for female actors.
Women taking on men’s roles isn’t exactly a new tradition, on the stage or off it. Many Shakespeare plays include scenes of women disguising themselves as men. When a Viola or a Julia or an Imogen puts on men’s clothing, she gains a kind of freedom and typically a lot more lines.
Though women did not appear on the stage in Shakespeare’s day in any attire, they arrived on the boards in the 1660s, playing not only female parts, but also Shylocks, Lears, Romeos and plentiful Hamlets. Such casting didn’t always stem from a feminist impulse — a pair of breeches shows off lots more leg than a long skirt — but it did provide compelling opportunities for actresses who felt limited by the roles available to them. In the 1840s, the celebrated actress Charlotte Cushman played Romeo to her sister’s Juliet and more than a half-century later Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet was the first ever committed to film.
All-female companies, like Takarazuka Revue in Japan and the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, currently staging a single-sex “Hamlet,” have long existed. And admired actresses like Fiona Shaw and Vanessa Redgrave have attempted Richard II and Prospero.
But female-to-male cross-casting remains a comparative rarity. When it does occur, it can trigger audience skepticism and critical discontent. Compare the praise lavished on the Mark Rylance-led Globe shows with some of the reviews greeting Ms. Lloyd’s “Julius Caesar,” which originated at the Donmar Warehouse in London.
One daily paper, The Telegraph, ran three separate negative assessments, appalled that any director would dare assign these parts to actresses. “Shakespeare never, after all, believed that a single word he wrote would ever be uttered upon a stage by a woman,” one critic harrumphed. But if spectators are so ready to accept middle-aged men in women’s roles (a notion Shakespeare also never imagined, as he wrote them for boys), why should such suspicion greet the reverse?
James C. Bulman, a professor of English at Allegheny College who edited a recent essay collection on cross-gender casting in Shakespeare, has some ideas. Speaking by phone, he noted that for many theatergoers, “women typically aren’t associated with that kind of power, that kind of dominance.”
Cush Jumbo, who plays Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar,” agreed. “I guess it’s a little bit scary to see girls running around with so much power,” she said.
If this explains spectator discomfort, it also clarifies why women might long for male roles. Kathryn Hunter, who has appeared as Lear and then as Richard III, will play Puck in the coming “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Theater for a New Audience. Speaking on a break from rehearsal, she said simply that in Shakespeare “the men have more interesting things to do.”
In a recent column for The Guardian, the actress and director Janet Suzman argued that men have more interesting things to think and speak, too. “There is simply no spiritual, intellectual or metaphysical equivalent to Lear, the Richards, the Henrys, nor the twin peaks of Othello and his demonic tempter, Iago,” she wrote.
Ms. Lloyd, who had earlier participated in a brief experiment with an all-female company at Shakespeare’s Globe, said that she conceived this “Julius Caesar” as a way to redress that imbalance. Speaking from London, she said that she wanted a work that would allow women to play something more than “the love interest, the tyrant’s wife, the tyrant’s mistress.” Frances Barber, who plays Caesar, noted that Ms. Lloyd “wanted us to get rid absolutely of any sort of frilly, female, wily, seductressy nonsense.”
Rid of that, the cast members, who call themselves “the Caesar sisters,” could feel more comfortable taking on male roles, male speech, male gestures. Harriet Walter, who plays Brutus, described rehearsal exercises in which the women explored “the way men don’t apologize for their physical presence in a room.” She added: “They spread out, they stand with their feet apart, they sit with their legs apart. They own the space.”
For Ms. Walter, 63, owning the space and owning this role has proved an unexpected privilege at this juncture in her career.
“I’d reached a point where I didn’t think I’d play Shakespeare any longer,” she said. “Once I’d played Cleopatra, I thought, ‘Now what can I do?’ Because any other female role I was offered in the Shakespeare canon was going to be inferior and less demanding. There was a certain logic to then turn to the male repertory.”
Seana McKenna, 57, who recently played Richard III at the Stratford Festival in Canada, echoed this sentiment. “Most major Shakespearean roles for women you play in your 20s and 30s,” she said. “So this was a gift — to lead a company when I actually had the experience to warrant it.”
One could argue that women are unavoidably less credible in these roles. Throughout history, they have involved themselves infrequently in political machinations and assassinations like those depicted in “Julius Caesar.” But Ms. Walter rejects such an objection. “I’ve played Cleopatra,” she said. “I am not any nearer to an Egyptian empress than I am to a Roman general. They are all characters.”
Ms. Lloyd has staged “Caesar” as a play within a play, in which the women are not themselves Roman senators but prisoners putting on a show. Yet she has ambitious goals for this “entirely feminist” production. She wants, she said, “to make young women in the audience feel they are potentially part of not just the romantic and the domestic, but that they could be at the center of the political sphere.” She added, “We’re on a mission to inspire women to find their voices.”
Whether or not this “Caesar” inspires audiences, it has certainly inspired the actresses involved. Ms. Jumbo, who said that she had coveted her male classmates’ roles during drama school, now wonders what other parts she might take on: “Playing Mark Antony has suddenly made me think: ‘Hold on a minute. I could play Hamlet!’ ”