Though I have only been in London for a few brief months, I have had the great fortune to already consider myself a regular attendee of the London theatre scene. I’ve had all kinds of visceral responses: I’ve wept, I’ve laughed, and I’ve been bored to delirium. In short, I’ve been to the theatre. But as I add more and more shows to my tally, I feel an uncomfortable and familiar pattern starting to emerge and I find myself asking a rather deflating question:a
Where are the women?
I don’t mean the female characters. They’re there. Technically. But they’re shadows, not fully flushed out human beings. And I don’t think it’s the female actors who are to blame. You can see them, fighting for their lives, giving their whole energy and commitment only to be told: ‘Tone it down. Be more shattered. Scream a little.’ Because that’s the refrain I see being repeated across the stage. Women who are told to either fall apart with weeping or with wails but nothing in between. And I don’t understand it.
I’ve seen a great deal of classical, or classically inspired, theatre of late (i.e Shakespeare, the Greeks) so that’s the focus of my example. I’ve no intention of referring to any specific production—I don’t think this a problem specific to any one production, rather the state of theatre in general.
Here’s what I don’t understand: Why is it that we can rattle off a thousand different interpretations of Hamlet but Ophelia never changes? I’ve seen Hamlets that were engulfed by madness, simply indecisive, or childishly incapable of dealing with grief. I’ve never seen Hamlet played the same way twice. I have yet to see any real difference in Ophelia’s portrayal—all of them are just a different attempt at the same Platonic ideal. Why is there only one way to play a woman but an endless amount of ways to play a man?
It has been suggested to me by different people at different times that, perhaps, this disease is localized somewhere in the text: ‘Because maybe the character is just written that way.’ Well that’s just bad historical research.
To borrow from the play itself: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Ophelia is not written as a weak character. The only things that are definitive about Ophelia are the lines of text assigned to her. That’s it. Nothing else is fact: not her exits nor her entrances, not her character description. All that ‘is’ Ophelia are the words following her name in the playscript. When we eschew the responsibility for our choices and lay the burden solely on the text we do a disservice to the work, the audience, and ourselves. And against no one is the crime so routinely committed as women. Because what we’re actually talking about when we use the text to justify weak, unchanging female characters, what we’re actually performing is not the text but the patriarchy. The only reason for Hamlet’s variety and Ophelia’s stagnation is a matter of gender—the gender of the characters and the gender of the theatre makers.
No to run the risk of engaging in political debate but, to run the risk of engaging in political debate, that’s part of the reason I’m voting for Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Because it means something to see a woman as President. And I don’t know if you can imagine how much that means until you’ve gone two hundred years without knowing what that looks like. Weak Ophelias are not the result of the text—they’re the result of a lack of female producers, directors, writers, stage managers, etc. in the arts. Representation means something, don’t let anyone else ever convince you otherwise.
Now, I don’t think this is a predicament exclusive to any one city or any one theatre or any one artistic genre—in fact, all the problems I mention in this post I have witnessed repeatedly in many of worlds most renowned theatrical and artistic cities. Nor, do I make any claim to have seen even the majority of the shows currently running on West End or throughout the rest of London. I would be happily surprised to see this pattern discontinued in any and all future shows I attend. But I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that’s not going to be the case, not right now anyway.
If I am to put one caveat on this piece it’s this: these opinions, these expressions of self and thought are not weighted down with a sense of disdain or apathy. Apathy is the enemy of the theatre. I hold these beliefs and these opinions and yes, these criticisms and disappointments, because I have hope. I hold such hope for the theatre.
This past week I stood on the stage of The Globe. The Globe is a 1997 reconstruction of the original 1599 theatre; Shakespeare’s theatre. It is sacred ground. After we had finished our movement master class, a few of us lingered on the stage, basking in the space. Tours continued in and out of the theatre while we breathed it all in. At the behest of a friend and, truth be told, my own apparent eagerness, I stood on that stage and I recited, bellowed fourth the monologue that was my undergraduate swan song and the piece that secured my place at graduate school. It was a King’s monologue, a man’s monologue. And yet it was I, a woman, who was performing it, performing it on the stage of the Globe.
Because when your voice reverberates from the rafters of The Globe, your gender, your color, you orientation doesn’t matter. Can you make those timbers echo with your voice? If you can do that, then you can play any part meant for that stage. To be on that stage, that is my dream. That is the place I want to be, that is the place my peers of different genders and colors and orientations want to be. I don’t believe in a theatrical future where that’s not possible. To put it quite simply, I won’t stand for it. I shouldn’t and no artist or audience member should either.
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, of 981 characters only 16% of them were written and gendered as female. That was also four hundred years ago, when a woman was legally considered the property of a man, whether it be her father or her husband, for the entirety of her life. It should scare the shit out of us that the majority of our theatrical productions still reflect that sentiment. Repeating the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Hamlet’s been predominately played by a white male for four centuries. Doesn’t that seem a little insane to you?
The theatre is my home. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But it can do better. We can do better. We must. To quote Rachel Cusk’s recent adaptation of Medea, “I will dismantle you.”
And we will. And I can’t wait to participate in that rebuilding.
(Me crying with happiness to be at the Globe Theatre)