Reverse Discrimination in Three Shakespearean Plays

In a stunning London theater project, an all-female cast make a feminist statement about interpreting the Bard’s timeless, yet immediate masterpieces.

Shakespeare Trilogy: Clare Dunne (Prince Hal) and Harriet Walter (Henry IV) in Henry IV.
Helen Maybanks

LONDON: Saturday, 10:30 A.M., in the lobby of the King’s Cross Theater, a relatively new venue for performances near two adjacent Tube stations: King’s Cross, where you’ll find the crazy shop for Harry Potter paraphernalia on Platform 9 3/4, and the wonderfully renovated St. Pancras.

In the deep black quadrangular space with a bar at one end playgoers huddle in advance of “Shakespeare Trilogy,” produced by the Donmar Theater with an all-female cast and directed by Phyllida Lloyd (better known for the musical “Mamma Mia” based on the songs of the pop group Abba): “Julius Caesar” at 11 A.M., “Henry IV” at 3 P.M. and “The Tempest” at 8 P.M. 

On weekday nights it is possible to view one of the three parts of the trilogy, but only on a Saturday does a contemporary theatergoer have the opportunity to replicate in London something of the experience of the celebration of drama in ancient Greece. Back then, in the cradle of modern Western theater, citizens dealt with the important things in their lives by means of watching them in performance on the stage during the course of an entire day.

At 10:45 a piercing siren goes off in the lobby, followed by the jangling of an iron gate and commands in the voices of women, four wardens leading a line of female prisoners along the lobby toward the auditorium, where the doors slam shut. Another siren and the first group of audience members is brought into a brightly lit anteroom, instructed in controlled behavior and brought into the auditorium. 

The theatergoers – including me – are visitors at a women’s prison and watch a play put on by the inmates. The hall is an arena in which 420 spectators surround the acting space – a kind of basketball court with faded markings – on four sides.

Shakespeare Trilogy: Sheila Atim (Lady Percy) and Jade Anouka (Hotspur) in Henry IV.
Helen Maybanks

Lloyd first directed “Julius Caesar” in 2012 with the same all-woman cast headed by actress Harriet Walter. Lloyd, who believes that in our day the cast of every single play should be gender equal, joined up with Walter in an attempt to compensate the women on the stage for Shakespeare having written his best roles for men, thereby preventing women from being on stage in the entire gamut of human emotions. (Male youth in Shakespeare’s day, however, did have the opportunity to experience the roles of young female characters.)

The director and the actress sought a way to make it easier for spectators locked into their own genders to digest the fact that the character of a man on the stage is played by a woman. The fact that the actresses in the play are representing female prisoners who are performing Shakespeare as a rehabilitation project solved a number of problems: It explained the fact that women are playing male roles while enabling the women to abandon habitual “female” behaviors and gestures and adopt “male” behavior and body language without losing their sexual identity. 

It also released the production of a play by Shakespeare from the constraints of “theater” that dictate aesthetic requirements of style, design and consistency. In a certain sense, putting Shakespeare’s plays in prison liberated the imaginations not only of the director and cast, but also of the audience.

Female freedom

Moreover, the subject of “Julius Caesar” is ostensibly “freedom.” Not the freedom of expression, funding and scorn, the definitions of which Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev finds difficult to understand, but rather “freedom” as a concept, a feeling, self-definition and ideology. Brutus, played by Walter, joins the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar in order to free the Romans from the yoke of his dictatorial rule. He sees himself as an assassin in the name of the freedom of the country he loves – not because he loves Julius Caesar less but rather because he loves Rome more – and himself as an honest and free man even more than that. It is not by chance that the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani directed “Caesar Must Die,” an Italian film drama about convicts rehearsing for a prison performance of “Julius Caesar.” 

Shakespeare Trilogy: Leah Harvey (The Douglas) and Jade Anouka (Hotspur) in Henry IV.
Helen Maybanks

Each of the three tragedies runs for two and quarter hours without an intermission, latecomers are not admitted and anyone who leaves during the performance is not allowed to return. All of them begin with one of the actresses declaring herself to be a prisoner and talking about what this play means to her. 

At the start of the project, female prisoners undergoing rehabilitation participated and some of the rehearsals took place in women’s prisons. Now the cast consists of actresses of varied skin colors, origins, accents and looks – all of them are talented, wonderfully skilled in acting, singing and playing a number of musical instruments – and they change roles and genders, redefining the concept of stage freedom.

“The Tempest” is the newest production in the trilogy – “Henry IV” was first performed two years ago and only now has this become a whole and unique project. It opens with Walter herself in the character of a prisoner that she created for herself: Hannah, a woman of 31 and mother of a baby girl, who drove the getaway car in a political-anarchist robbery in 1981, during the course of which three people were killed. Hannah refused to recognize the court and even though she had not killed anyone was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. In prison she lives her own reformation and helps reform other women as she watches them enter the prison, become reformed and get released while she remains there. 

This, based on a real-life character – the heroine of a fictional play about a women’s prison – unites the whole project into a single story: the struggle for freedom and its loss and sin (“Julius Caesar”), the punishment in loss of freedom and the process of complete reformation during its course (“Henry IV,” in which the king experiences limitations of his power and the hedonist Prince Hal becomes a worthy heir), and the release from conventions and obligations (“The Tempest,” in which Prospero frees Ariel and his daughter and reconciles with his enemies).

Walter played a tortured, determined and desperate Brutus in “Julius Caesar”; in “Henry IV” she was a king aware of his faults and limitations, fearful for his power and disappointed with his son (Prince Hal, the charming rake who plans to steal the public’s heart and disavows Falstaff, his portly older companion played by Clare Dunne, who also played Brutus’ heartbreaking wife Portia). In “The Tempest” Walter played Prospero, who is prepared to cast his books and his magic to the bottom of the sea and remains alone on the stage while the other actresses, in street dress, are ready to go free, released into their lives. As Walter-Hannah-the actress and the human being sums up: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own,” and remains, alone, on the stage.

Shakespeare Trilogy: Martina Laird (Worcester) in Henry IV.
Helen Maybanks

Play within a play

The framework of “a play within a play” makes the quite complex work of the transition between complete identification with the character on the stage and the breaking up of the stage illusion (which is fragile in any case: plastic knives, cap guns, red rubber gloves instead of bloodied hands) very much easier for the spectator, by means of disturbance. The prisoner-actresses improvise texts or become embroiled in a fight between prisoners in the midst of a staged fight between Shakespeare’s characters, in order to revert at once to complete identification the moment the disturbance ends. 

The trilogy ends, in effect, when Prospero-Walter is alone on the stage, the actresses-prisoners have been released and exited through the iron gates enclosing the audience, and then an actress comes onstage with a vacuum cleaner. This actually happened at one of the rehearsals in a prison and was integrated into the performance.

Leah Harvey, playing the Soothsayer who warns Julius Caesar of the Ides of March (with a doll in hand and on a child’s tricycle), is the muscular and athletic fighter Douglas in “Henry IV” (with an airborne somersault and amazing capoeira and boxing moves) and also the enchanting child-woman Miranda in “The Tempest,” celebrating her first love with Ferdinand, played by Sheila Atim, who was Hotspur’s wife in “Henry IV.” There she sings with poignant beauty a song of love and parting to her husband, joined by the whole cast on many instruments: Harriet Walter plays the flute wonderfully. 

Springy and dark-skinned Jade Anouka, with a mane of red-dyed hair, is Mark Anthony, winning the Romans’ hearts with his eulogy for Caesar, and is also Hotspur and the angelic Ariel, who emits static electricity with every move. Sophie Stanton is Falstaff, and when Hal crudely ignores him in the last scene, suddenly the character of the fat knight becomes a harmful and violent prisoner who bursts out against another prisoner who has hurt her, and the other actresses, playing prison guards, subdue her by force.

These three productions, which were built up over the course of five years, are a stunning theater project that is more than grappling with these plays: They form a statement about doing theater that creates credibility and is able to maneuver among its levels, totally faithful to the original works and totally free in its creativity. These plays are both timeless and immediate, current and comprehensible to everyone, encompassing plot, philosophy and politics. Soon it will travel over the Atlantic to play in New York.

And above it all hovers the image of human life as a kind of prison in which a person must try to become rehabilitated (from the shock of the moment of birth, which is a kind of imprisonment), build relations of power, closeness and solidarity and watch others being released, while he or she remains in the chains of his or her life to its end, without parole.

It might not be coincidental that the 1,200-seat performance space in the same complex is hosting a production of the musical “Lazarus” (a transfer from Broadway), created from lyrics by David Bowie with a play written by Enda Walsh and directed by Belgian Ivo van Hove with his life partner and artistic collaborator, designer Jan Versweyveld. It is the type of musical in which the main thing is the music (some of Bowie’s songs are indeed mesmerizing, especially those performed by the angelic Sophia Anne Caruso), as well as a festival of projections and lights.

Basically, this is a story of someone from another planet who has found himself on Earth, and what he wants more than anything else is to be released from life in the terrestrial prison and soar back to outer space.