It’s Saturday 10 December, a bit dreary and rainy but the holiday trimmings keep things light. My ticket says 11am, so at 10:45 I emerge from the Regent’s Canal exit at King’s Cross underground station and turn right. There’s a queue forming outside the makeshift theatre space, but I head straight for the ramp, flash my ticket, and am ushered through into a warm, tight lobby. Then, huddled together in the buzz and the heat, we wait: me and several dozen other lucky folks who have ponied up £120 for the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy, created and directed by Phyllida Lloyd and her incredible cast in association with Clean Break.
As you can imagine, we are mostly the expected demographic: in early 30s and 20s (notably, thanks in part to the Donmar’s “Front Row” access scheme), plus a few middle aged and older; not exclusively but by far majority white. We look like a night at the Almeida or the Young Vic across town; we look, mostly, like London’s privileged theatre-going class.
But today, for this one time only, I just don’t care.
Because we are here to see a monumental, game-changing piece of work. We are here to see an astonishingly talented group of women – women ONLY, and largely women of colour – perform three Shakespeare plays not associated, typically, with women’s roles: Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest. These women will play all the parts, and they will play them so well that at the end of the day I will declare on social media, with all the force of twenty years of Shakespeare-going around the world behind me, that this is some of the finest, if not THE finest, Shakespeare I’ve ever witnessed.
What follows is a post about mobility, accessibility, and the public stage. About what it takes to put women’s stories on view for a public audience, and why it shouldn’t have to take so very much at all – because women’s stories are, in fact, for everyone.
Women’s stories are STORY, full stop.
But this is also a post about mobility, accessibility, and those who live on our margins, because the Shakespeare Trilogy doesn’t just put women’s stories, through the words of William Shakespeare, on the stage.
It puts incarcerated women’s stories on stage, and it has given incarcerated women the freedom to explore their stories in kind.
It was early 2012 (a full year before Orange is the New Black made prison women hip, y’all) when Phyllida Lloyd joined forces with Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, and Executive Producer Kate Pakenham to conceive an all-female Julius Caesar.
(Let’s stop for a minute and mark this, because it will be important: Josie [below right] and Kate run one of London’s premier West-End venues. Phyllida [below left] is one of the UK’s leading directors. GIRLS TO THE FRONT, as my friend the film critic Sophie Mayer says.)
Why just girls on stage? Lloyd notes in an interview reprinted in the ST program that “Women have not been well served by [Britain’s] devotion to the Bard,” for two reasons. First, as she, Charlotte Higgins, Elizabeth Freestone, and other researchers (including me, in a forthcoming article) have argued recently, Shakespeare’s plays were written for a company of men, to be played primarily for male audiences (as well as for a Queen who styled herself a virgin). Of course most of the good roles were going to be male!
What does this mean for us, now? Simple: when we universalise Shakespeare’s power, authority, and aesthetic prowess, we also universalise what was in fact an entirely context- and history-dependent accident: an imbalance of male versus female (or gender-neutral) roles.
And because we lionise Shakespeare as the original poet-genius, we also call that shit not just normal, but ideal.
Second, and related, is this reason: with the canonisation of William “The Bard” Shakespeare – and the attendant cultural and economic power enjoyed by the Shaks industry worldwide – has come a firm, entrenched tradition of male “ownership” over this figure. Shakespeare’s roles are largely for men; the best ones (Lear, Hamlet, Prospero, Hal) are rite-of-passage work for male actors; tradition holds that men more typically direct His work. (And direct it better, somehow. How do we know? Well, we just… do. Don’t believe me? Tonic Theatre’s Advance project will open your eyes. Read more here.)
All this means that a situation like the Shakespeare Trilogy – in which Josie and Kate ask Phyllida to direct a major play, then another, then a third, with women in all the roles – is an utter, stunning rarity. Much more common, even in these post-feminist days, is a situation like the one in place at the Royal Shakespeare Company: powerful A.D. Greg Doran welcomed Erica Whyman as “deputy” A.D. in 2013; she took over responsibility for new work, equality and diversity files, and the redevelopment of the RSC’s famed small venue, The Other Place. Wonderful stuff, to be sure – Whyman is an incredibly talented visionary! – but again, let’s stop and mark the distinction, because it’s important. Doran is the current “owner” of the RSC’s brand; nobody questions that. Whyman’s role is one of helpmeet: she makes the RSC a safe place to play if you are not white and male.
This is the context in which – and these are the reasons why – the partnership among Lloyd, Rourke, and Pakenham was so ground-breaking in 2012, and why it continued enthusiastically with 2014’s Henry IV and 2016’s The Tempest. And the need for women’s voices and experiences in all aspects of making Shakespeare now on stage felt obvious to me the moment I stepped into the Donmar’s King’s Cross space and witnessed the energy, the fire, the athleticism, and the power of the women-identified actors making this work.
Whole, amazing, brave new worlds emerge when women’s contemporary bodies inhabit the characters written originally for men 400 years ago.
And, to make matters even more electric: in this case, the worlds that emerged were driven by the powerful imaginations of women who are, literally, bounded in a nutshell.
While I’m waiting in the lobby for the first show to begin, I read all the materials on the cast wall adjacent to the seating area. Here, I grab a handful of postcards with photos of the actors, in-role as their prison characters, and turn them over. The cards tell me this:
The Shakespeare Trilogy is meta-theatre at its finest. It is theatre about the process of putting Shakespeare on stage. It is about what making theatre can help us to understand about ourselves, about our relationship to the cultures that shape us, and about our potential future worlds.
In conjunction with Lloyd, each other, and the women prisoners with whom they worked throughout their creative process, each of the professional actors in the ST cast created a female prison character through which to shape her interpretation of the Shakespearean characters she portrays in each of the plays in the trilogy.
(Got that? It goes: actor -> prison character -> multiple Shaks characters. Actors play the prison characters, which are then layered onto the Shaks characters. It’s tricky to do and tricky to watch. It’s an utterly marvellous challenge for audiences, though.)
We in the audience spy those prison characters briefly at the top and bottom of each show, as well as in moments through the middles when the Shakespeare gets interrupted by guards, when momentary violence between the prison characters breaks out, or when moments of tenderness, fear, and love amongst the imprisoned women bubble to the surface, driven by the emotions the verse brings.
These shows, in other words, aren’t just Shakespeare; they are a representation of Shakespeare played by and for women on the inside, for their own pleasure, learning, sustenance, and strength. We are visitors at their drama club, watching them do something important for themselves. We are asked to bear witness to them as they shape their stories through Shakespeare’s language, and as they give their own bodies, hearts, and minds fresh life thereby.
The ST was created in partnership with two organisations (Clean Break, linked above, and the York St John University Prison Partnership Project) that bring a form of drama therapy to incarcerated women in an effort to help them access their power and potential and build new worlds to walk into when they get out of jail. But ST itself is not drama therapy; it is, rather, a kind of immersive event that invites those of us privileged – with money, time, cultural capital and bodily freedom – to see for once properly inside the privilege that has accrued to the works of William Shakespeare, and to recognise one way in which that privilege might be more equitably distributed.
Who owns this legendary – no, this mythical – guy’s stuff? Who really benefits from its continual re-hashing, from our world-without-end need to see YET ANOTHER Romeo and Juliet? Who else might benefit? What would it take to make that actually happen?
I don’t have room here to review these amazing three shows in full, but I do want to offer three small snapshots of my experience over the course of the 12 hours I gave over to Lloyd, her creative partners, her actors, and the imprisoned women whose spirits they held throughout the day. These are simply recordings of three moments that made meaning for me as a woman invested in theatre equality, as a scholar invested in women making Shakespeare for the public stage, and as a human being trying to be hopeful in a moment of bleak uncertainty. They are three moments that especially moved me.
Moment number one happened at the end of Julius Caesar. With but lines to go, the performers playing ushers/guards brought the prison characters’ show to a close: lights up, everyone back to their bunks. Harriet Walter, as Brutus, was positioned on the stairs behind me and to the left. (The ST played in an arena-style, in-the-round space that called up the spirit of a chilly institutional gymnasium.)
“IT ISN’T FAIR!” she called out, visibly upset. For a moment I wasn’t sure who was speaking: Brutus, her prison character Hannah (pictured above), or Harriet herself. “YOU NEVER LET US FINISH,” she continued, through tears. This world, she cried out, has gone all to shit. Everything is a mess. So there, then: you finish it. YOU FINISH IT.
She ran down the steps and off stage; her departure left me with the strong sense of a call to arms. This wasn’t work made for me, for us in the hard plastic chairs banked around the room; this wasn’t even just work made for the women who inspired it. It was work made in the hope of a fresh future for all who need one, and if it could not be permitted to end – if it was always, cruelly, brutally stopped before its promised ending by those who either didn’t appreciate its value, or (worse) saw the value and aimed to withhold it – then that future might not ever begin.
I left for lunch feeling gutted.
Moment number two appeared two thirds of the way through Henry IV, by far my favourite performance of a Shakespeare play of all time. (OF. ALL. TIME.) Anchored by the bewitchingly mischievous Clare Dunne as Hal (below left), Sophie Stanton’s rough-but-ready, working class Falstaff (below right), and the svelt, gorgeous, forthrightly confident Jade Anouka as Hotspur, this piece exuded athleticism, confidence, and harsh masculinity – all this with no biological males in site. (Apart from being stunning ensemble theatre and simply outstanding, clear-as-a-bell verse speaking, Lloyd’s Henry IV is a textbook example of gender as social performance rather than biological “fact”.)
But it was when Anouka and Dunne faced off – the prized fight of this play, between the balsy princes-in-arms – that the sheer power and beauty of these strong, able, talented women’s bodies shone through their characters, through the text, and landed on stage before us. This was the moment I recognized that I’d been so engrossed in watching and listening I’d not noticed the time pass, and that I really, really did not want this performance to end. I’ve honestly never before felt that at the theatre – and certainly not at a performance of Shakespeare’s work. (Usually by the end of Act Four I’m ready for it to be over, already. Not this time.)
Moment number three marked Lloyd’s ending. The Tempest is done, and only Walter as Hannah – who is based on the life of Judith Clark, an American serving 75 years for a crime committed during a political action – is left on stage. She’s in her bunk. She’s reading. She gets a visit from one of the other prison women: someone who’s been inside but is now free, and has come back to make sure Hannah is loved, seen, cared for (and has fresh reading material!). That’s when lights come gently up on all of the staircases around the space; the women’s prison characters appear in every nook and cranny. They are out now; Hannah, with a lifetime on the clock, will only ever see friends come in order to go. But they are here now, maybe in person or maybe in Prospero’s dream, to send their love and memories and best wishes. To say they are doing fine, haven’t forgotten the lessons they shared making theatre together.
I know for sure this sounds cheesy – and I know colleagues who thought the entire prison frame unnecessary to the work of making amazing feminist Shakespeare. But I was beyond moved by this final action, and by the power of community – women’s community, brave and strong – that it called into the otherwise barren space.
I remembered Hannah’s words at the end of Julius Caesar: YOU FINISH IT, THEN. Or maybe – hey, maybe – you could join us, support us, honour what we’re building rather than strike it down before its ending. Help us get to a new beginning. Together, I bet we could do it.
No community is perfect – that’s obvious multiple times throughout the ST plays, as the prison characters fight or risk unraveling. But together is the only way we make things better, the only way we move forward, move safely on – and this theatre is stark, gorgeous evidence of just that. Lloyd, Rourke, Anouka, Dunne, Walter… and the many, many, many women on and off stage who made these three incredible shows reveal what power Shakespeare holds for women able to seize it – and for the women to whom they are able to grant access to that power in turn.
Thus, for me, is the Shakespeare Trilogy finally work about access – access to cultural power, political power, the power of learning, the power of creative making, the power of public performance. This access is grabbed hard and with fire by those whose mobility had been limited by Patriarchy’s Shakespeare, but who won’t stand for barriers anymore.
Long may they hold open the doors.
PS: I know this has been a very long post. Thank you for reading!