Rose Playhouse – until 30th October 2015
Guest Review by Sarah Tinsley
Shakespeare liked to play around with ideas of male and female. From cross-dressing to multiple identities, appearances are never quite what they seem on his stage. So it’s fitting then, that Natasha Rickman decided to run a little gender experiment. Each night, the cast take on either a role of their own gender, or the opposite. Add to that, the cast jump between different parts as the show goes on, sometimes within the same scene. All in all, in order to make it an effective performance, the acting needs to be impressive in order to break down the walls of believability to make the audience buy into the shifting identities of the people before us. And they do.
From capering jesters to lovesick ladies, the cast pull of the wide range of characters with aplomb. Thomas Richardson in particular should be noted for his excellent versatility. He morphs from a common fool, to a blithering idiot, to a noble Duke, all the while crafting our response to him through subtle changes in posture, voice and mannerisms. But that’s not to say the rest of the cast are any lesser. The extremely intimate nature of the venue means that the actors are incredibly close to their audience, at times interacting and engaging with them, so there is nowhere to hide. Clare Humphrey’s energy was infectious as Maria, Fred Gray was positively vile as the petulant Malvolio and Bethan Culinane brought something quite vulnerable and humourous to the role of Olivia. The Rose Playhouse is an atmospheric venue, with very little space for the actors to work with, so it is impressive that it was such an engaging performance. It’s a shame that the scenes that took part over by the water were a bit lost, but short of changing the fence to glass, there wasn’t much the actors could do, and it was surprising how much song and lighting managed to draw these elements together.
While they get performed the most, Shakespearean comedies are arguably much more difficult to successfully stage than tragedies. Humour doesn’t really translate very well from a few decades ago, never mind four hundred years ago. Thomas Flynn, as Sir Toby, shows us that a drunken idiot is always funny, and they do well with tone of voice and gesture to indicate the intended humour of their words. In parts it was genuinely funny, which is a credit to them and the enduring power of Shakespeare’s language. But this performance was about more than making us laugh.
Natasha Rickman, co-founder and director of ‘Women at RADA,’ which promotes gender equality for women on stage and screen, crowd-funded this production though Indiegogo, which shows her commitment to opening up the dialogue about gender representations and how they can be challenged. And it shows in her direction. The actors frequently turn to the audience and deliver their lines in mocking tones, especially those that refer to the qualities of men and women. “Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we, for such as we are made of, such we be,” is Viola’s lament on the state of women. Shakespeare clearly shows this not to be the case; through the ingenious Maria and the defiant Olivia, he clearly tells us that they are not the “frail” things they protest they are. This is, of course, the lingering issue that female actors have had to defend ever since then, and it’s interesting to note that so many years later, we are still struggling to make an equal case for women on the stage. The delivery of this line by Maia Alexander is delivered with self-mocking. The women work just as hard in the play to decide their fates as the men, and Natasha Rickman wants us to recognise that.
There are other judgements of women to be challenged. “For women are as roses, whose fair flower, being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.” How very telling. Shakespeare notes attitudes that will persist. These are the speeches that have been chosen to stay in the play, through a cut that sees it down to ninety minutes, probably necessary in a setting that is basically an archaeological site, but I suspect she kept them there for a reason. The current debate about older women and their exclusion from stage and screen is based on this very premise. Clearly Rickman is keen to challenge this notion of beauty equalling worth. Through confrontation, she forces us to acknowledge that this is how the world of theatre perceives women, and that it should change.
An enigmatic performance, delivered in such a way to leave the audience not only with a sense of entertainment and good humour, but that, just like Shakespeare, we shouldn’t be so quick to assign fixed roles based on gender.