Not a motiveless malignity: Iago, Othello and Desdemona at the RSC

Othello dir. Iqbal Khan, performed by the RSC at the RST, 26th August 2015, live cinema broadcast at the City Screen, York.

I was shocked by my own complacency toward race when I first saw this trailer for Iqbal Khan’s RSC production of Othello a couple of months ago. Othello is speaking to Desdemona, but as the camera swings from him to her and back again, something has shifted – the tone of voice, the words, the face. Was I really confused who was speaking for a moment? That was a directorial intention, I hope, because there is only room for one minority leading actor in Othello, right? Wrong.

Khan’s production, broadcast live to cinemas around the world on Thursday, ‘made history’ (in the UK and for the RSC at least) by casting Lucian Msamati as Iago opposite Hugh Quarshie’s Othello. Quarshie has long expressed ambivalence about the depiction of ‘the Moor’ not only on stage but by Shakespeare’s representation itself, famously questioning whether black actors should even play the role (although he never definitively concluded that they shouldn’t: see also Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 2004 Guardian piece, ‘My Problem With the Moor’). The subtle ways in which Khan’s casting recalibrated how we perceive Othello as the ‘race play’ has been explored by many reviewers, with Dr Peter Kirwan noting that ‘for Khan, this was not a production about a society against one man, but a society divided against itself’.  Both Iago and Othello were visibly outsiders, not because they were black but because they both held rank. As Quarshie notes, in both early modern ‘Venice’ and supposedly ‘post-racial Britain’, the general is one of ‘the only black men […] who isn’t either a cleaner, a soldier or a servant’. Thus Iago’s sense of betrayal at being passed over for promotion for the less experienced, white Cassio makes total sense.  The contemporary, 21st century setting allowed for a reading in which this Venetian society, disturbingly familiar, appeared to think that it was ‘colourblind’ – the Duke’s own daughter would be allowed to marry a ‘Moor’ if he was like Othello, apparently. Yet a feckless young white man didn’t think twice about referring to a high-ranking military leader as ‘the thick lips’ to his black friend and everyone was a bystander to casual and institutionalised racism when it came down to it. Even the righteous Desdemona compromised herself from the outset. ‘”I saw Othello’s visage in his mind”? Really??’ repeated Quarshie/Othello incredulously, only half teasing her. Although the casting of Msamati problematised what is now seen as a simplistic interpretation – that the motivation for Iago’s malignity is racism – it is important to remember that as late as the 1980s critics were pointing out that overlooking racism as a motive and a context in the play was itself deeply problematic (see Roger Day ‘Reading Othello‘ in Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon 1996). And Quarshie made his Othello either vocally challenge or reallocate lines that he argues that no black man, if there had been a black man in Shakespeare’s company, would ever had said. Thus Desdemona’s reputation was as ‘begrimed and black’ as Iago’s face, not his.

Othello (Quarshie) and Iago (Msamati) © Tristram Kenton

Othello (Quarshie) and Iago (Msamati) © Tristram Kenton

Msamati, however, does not believe ‘that what drives Iago is anything racial at all‘. When he improvised on Roderigo’s imagery, moving rapidly from the derogatory ‘thick lips’ to the bestial Barbary horse and ‘old black ram/ […] tupping your white ewe’, he did not seem to be expressing self-loathing; rather, he grasped at an opportunity to exploit the animalistic stereotypes still prevalent in a society where white masculinity sees itself threatened by black male sexuality, and he did this simply in order to ensure that Brabantio would be enraged and disgusted enough to curtail the elopement of his daughter. Msamati sees Iago’s motivation as something ‘deeper, more dangerous, [and] emotional’: he behaves like a ‘jilted jealous boyfriend’ he says in the pre-streaming material. This gives an utterly convincing and confessional edge to Iago’s sudden claim to Othello that ‘I lay with Cassio lately’.

The scene in which this dialogue takes place is central to Khan’s re-visioning of the play, and it was a scene that raised many questions. It is usually performed as a paint by numbers demonstration of how Iago ‘[…]put the Moor/Even into a jealousy so strong/That judgement cannot cure[…]/And practising upon his peace and quiet,/Even to madness’. But, as I have already said, this was a production that sought to disrupt complacencies. The ‘noble Moor’, after all, is as problematic a stereotype as ‘the old black ram’. Quarshie’s Othello was neither. Instead he was a complex man who thrived on power and control: verbal, emotional and physical. The production’s emphasis here is on the culture of militarism: Othello was a mercenary general, a man who fought wars as much for his own personal gain (money, status, reputation). The implication was, he could be relied on to get results for Venice regardless of any rules of engagement or human rights conventions. And so, previously, we have seen a nameless, faceless man dragged on stage, tortured with drills and waterboarded, clearly under the command of Othello. Then, in a shocking and graphic reversal of power roles, Iago was presented not as the auteur of the tragedy but as a victim of his own machinations, a man who had already lost control of the plot by act three. When Othello demanded to ‘Make me to see ’t, or at the least so prove it/That the probation bear no hinge nor loop/To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life!’ Iago was strapped to the same chair as the general’s last victim. Again tortured with the contents of the tool box and nearly suffocated with a plastic bag in a scene worthy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, you couldn’t help thinking, ‘Well, what else was he supposed to say?’ In this production, it was Msamati’s Iago who became human and vulnerable.

On one level, I found this scene extremely effective. Firstly, I like grotesque violence in my early modern stage plays – the tearing out of a heart or a tongue, the plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes on stage. Sanitizing man’s inhumanity to man is a dangerous thing. If it happens off-stage, out of sight, we don’t have to face the fact that we are complicit in it. It also made sense of Othello’s breakdown, in which the routine violence and abuse of his day job inevitably spills over into his personal life. Quarshie’s charismatic but deeply unpleasant Othello critiques the ‘nobility’ that is often unquestioningly bestowed on ‘our’ military personnel, as we turn a blind eye to, or even excuse, their sometimes illegal and murderous actions. What bothers me, however, was the peripheral nature of these allusions to the crimes committed by western forces at places such as Abu Ghraib. They weren’t centralised enough to make the production a political allegory, as in the work of Sulayman al-Bassam. I felt the production needed to have the courage of its convictions and much more overtly address the connections it appeared to suggest between militaristic masculinity/ entitlement/violence (domestic or otherwise), and western foreign policy in the wake of the First Gulf War. This was nearly political theatre, but not quite. We remained too wrapped up in what would happen to our star-crossed lovers (even if one was a violent narcissist) to remember to care what happened to the faceless man once he was hauled off stage. As Kirwan argues, there was a danger that the torture scenes became a device.

Desdemona (Vanderham) and Othello (Quarshie) © Zuleika Henry

Desdemona (Vanderham) and Othello (Quarshie) © Zuleika Henry

Nonetheless, this was thought-provoking, intelligent and compelling theatre. The power play between the central characters and the larger society was nuanced and complex, as was the prejudice around both race and gender. Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona was particularly strong, rejecting the often infantalised, over-feminised interpretations that still dominate productions, although her fabulous dresses (somewhere between Game of Thrones and Frozen)  didn’t quite ring true. Surely this was a woman who wore trousers? Her death also seemed slightly on the traditional, tame side in a production that was not traditional or tame. Yes, she fought back, but I anticipated more disturbing violence after Othello put out the light with his boot. A man killing his wife should not be prettified.

Having said that, although I’m sometimes slightly disappointed by the predictability of the RSC’s work, directors like Khan and Aberg are bringing an engaging and energizing perspective, and although I’ve criticized Greg Doran before about his ‘colourblind’ casting practices, productions commissioned by him like this are beginning to remedy the fact that the RSC itself often presented a world where minority actors were routinely servants, soldiers or five-line dukes. Listen to the Male, Pale and Stale RSC debate 2015 here.

See Andrew Dickson on Othello and race here.

RSC theatre trailer

Other reviews: Poppy Brady Voice reviewPaul Edmonson The Stage reviewHolly Williams Independent reviewFiona Mountford Evening Standard reviewMichael Covenay What’s On Stage review

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Shakespeare in Ukraine

Daria Moskvitina & Bogdin Korneljuk

Daria Moskvitina & Bogdin Korneljuk

Thank you to Paul Edmonson and Blogging Shakespeare for the update and photo!  

We had great fun dancing and dining with Daria and Bogdan at the 10th Craiova Shakespeare Festival in Romania in May, but just in case anybody thinks that Shakespeare isn’t relevant today, here is their latest dispatch from a part of the world that ‘lives’ Shakespearean scenarios in a way that, thankfully, I do not :

 

‘The Ukrainian Shakespeare Centre express our great appreciation of the wholehearted support for our struggle for democracy expressed by the European scientific community. Shakespeare wrote that expectation usually hits “where hope is coldest; and despair most sits” (All’s Well That Ends Well, 2.1.144) and thanks to your inspiring aid we go on fighting, keeping our hope and creative spirit alive. We feel enormous gratitude to you for all the encouraging emails we have received – your warm words reassure us that even in the hardest times we must (like that line just before the end of King Lear) “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”. And so, rehashing the words of Sebastian from Twelfth Night “We can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks” (3.3.14-15).

We also want to remind you that the members of our Centre are eagerly waiting for your applications for the Fourth international conference “Shakespearean code in the global cultural space: Between call and challenge” which will be held in Classic Private University, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on 25-27 September, 2014.You can contact us via uashakespeare@gmail.com for more information.

At the moment we are preparing the new issues of our journals “Renessansni studii” (“Renaissance Studies”) and “Shekspirivs’kyi dyskurs” (“Shakespeare discourse”). The journal “Renaissance Studies” deals with the broad range of problems of Renaissance literature, philosophy and culture. The journal “Shakespeare discourse” publishes scientific articles about Shakespeare’s biography and writing, it also casts light upon the issues of reception of the Bard’s legacy (translations, adaptations, parodies, intertextual references, stage versions) and of his influence upon other spheres of intellectual and cultural space (music, painting, education, advertising etc.). If you are interested in the cooperation with us, please, do not hesitate to address the Centre (our e-mail addresses areuashakespeare@gmail.com and renaissance@zhu.edu.ua.

The international conference is the part of the Ukrainian Shakespeare Project 2014 arranged by the Ukrainian Shakespeare Centre. It is the chain of events dedicated to the 450th anniversary of the Bard which will be held in different cities of Ukraine. Working on this project we tried to cover the broadest range of recipients of different ages (school teachers and pupils, students of universities and academies, all other people who are interested in Shakespeare and his writing). Together with the autumn scientific conference the Project includes:

All the year round: The mailout campaign “Shakescribe.ua” for everyone who subscribes to it on the registration page of the project (https://tinyletter.com/Shakescribe_ua). Each week the subscribers get informational e-mails with interesting facts about the wide range of Shakespearean topics (curiosities concerning the Bard’s biography, screen and stage versions of his plays, Shakespeare’s presence in modern art and mass-media). All the e-mail issues are supplied with rich illustration materials; each e-mail also contains web-links to pictures, videos, sites that can make the textual information more vivid.

Spring 2014: The contest among the school-teachers of world literature “Shakespeare Lesson 2014”. The participants send summaries of the world literature lessons which deal with one of Shakespeare’s works. The jury, which includes the members of our Centre and teaching staff from all over Ukraine, choose 5 best lesson-summaries. The teachers that are the authors of these summaries are invited to the best schools of Kyiv to give this lesson to the unfamiliar class of pupils. The best lessons will be filmed and recorded on DVDs which will be spread among the Ukrainian teachers of world literature.

Spring – autumn 2014: The contest of research papers dedicated to the Ukrainian reception of Shakespeare’s works “Shakespeare: the Ukrainian version”. Young scholars – students and post-graduates – can take part in the contest. The papers should deal with the intertextual traces of Shakespeare’s works in Ukrainian literature, with the problems of Ukrainian translations of the Bard’s legacy, theatrical versions of his plays, etc. This event is sponsored by the Ukrainian National Women’s league of America.

Summer 2014: The intellectual quest for students “Shakespeare forever!”. Student teams (each has up to 9 members) which represent different cities of Ukraine come to Lviv and compete for the title of “Shakespeare experts”. They fulfill various tasks – answer questions, make project-work, present the results of it. After the competition all the teams can attend some special events – Shakespeare theatrical master-classes, Shakespeare coffee-break and the round-table seminars with the leading Ukrainian scientists.

We would appreciate your help and your kind advice in implementing the Ukrainian Shakespeare Project 2014. For us it’s very important to know about your experience of arranging such events, you can also share with us information about the events that will be held in your country to commemorate the Shakespeare’s anniversary.

Do drop us a line to uashakespeare@gmail.com

Many thanks!

Bogdan Korneljuk and Daria Moskvitina’

– See more at: http://bloggingshakespeare.com/shakespeare-ukraine#sthash.34dJIqPO.dpuf

Chinese Coriolanus at the Edinburgh Festival: Play out of Context?

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Lin Zhaohua, translated by Ying Roucheng and performed by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (BPAT) at the Edinburgh Playhouse: Edinburgh International Festival, 20-21 August, 2013

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Coriolanus (c) BPAT

(I was initially gutted to realise that Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus, originally performed in Beijing in 2007, was playing at the Edinburgh International Festival this August for ‘two days only’: those two days were the first  after my baby’s due date! We live in England…  ‘It’s only a play,’ I tried to tell myself. Only a play directed by the main subject of my PhD, Chinese experimental theatre director, Lin Zhaohua… But thanks to the extraordinary punctuality and rapidity of delivery of my youngest son (we didn’t have time to get out of the taxi!), and the extraordinary generosity and understanding of my civil partner, I managed to get to see Coriolanus on the Wednesday night, so exhausted and baby-brained that I was relieved that the production was punctuated by the controversial intrusion of heavy metal bands – they certainly kept me awake and paying attention!)

I saw Lin Zhaohua’s remarkable post-Tiananmen Hamlet in 1995, at the Tokyo International Festival. Then, in 2011, I also saw his renderings of Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Chekhov’s Ivanov, as part of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre’s ‘Lin Zhaohua Festival’. All starred his long term collaborator, the veteran actor Pu Cunxin, and all, it appeared to my friend and interpreter, Zhou Yan, and to me, were about lonely men, alienated in someway from the communities around them.

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus (c) BPAT

During our interview with Lin (2011), he told us excitedly that he had just been in discussion with ‘a man from Edinburgh’. But how would Coriolanus fare when transferred to the Scottish stage, my friend wondered? Would Westerners be able to understand him? Reviews of the Edinburgh production have been mixed, as was my own response to it, but whatever my reservations about some of the nuances of this incarnation, it was certainly a brilliant night’s entertainment. Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most political tragedies – variously interpreted as a critique of the abuse of autocratic power or as a warning against the fickleness of the masses – is an interesting choice for a director who repeatedly insists that he is not political, especially if viewed as part of the triptych of his other Shakespeare appropriations, the aforementioned Hamlet, and Richard III. When Lyn Gardner dismissed the production as ‘offering empty spectacle in the place of nuanced political comment and metaphor’, she was rightly upbraided by a young Chinese woman in the comments below: I think having chosen this play is one brave movement itself. As scholars Li Ruru and Alexa (Alex) Huang have explored in relation to Shakespeare in Mainland China, and Dennis Kennedy has explored in relation to political Shakespeare behind the Iron Curtain, sometimes simply the act of putting on a play is the political comment and metaphor. Lin Zhaohua is a complex case because of his longevity and status – in the 1980s he was the founder of modern Chinese theatre experimentalism, along with self-exiled playwright and Nobel laureate Gao Xinjian, a form that in itself was deeply politically subversive in its rejection of socialist realism, and as a result they faced official criticism and some of their work was banned; yet, as a Beijing intellectual through and through he has chosen to stay in the politically conservative capital city of Beijing (he hails from neighbouring Tianjin) and had formerly risen to the position of BPAT’s vice president. For me, what is often most intriguing is how practioners appear to work within the restraints of the system,  yet encode their work with slippery, ambivalent details that to outsiders of that system may seem ‘opaque’ or simply absurd (as opposed to Absurd…).

I have linked to several other reviews so for the rest of this one I will concentrate on what I think were the main areas of cross-cultural tension or misapprehension in the reception of this production, and think about the ways I would try to understand them in a Chinese context.  Please feedback in the comments section below with your insights, and any corrections.  It is also important to note when responding to the professional criticism (cynicism?) of broadsheet reviews that the performance I attended was met with rapturous applause and much excited post-performance chattering, whether from elderly European Sinofiles or young East Asian rock fans...

The first, and most talked about, innovation was Lin Zhaohua’s incorporation of two Beijing bands, one heavy metal, the other more indie rock, into BPAT’s production – used not only as incidental music but, as commentators have put it, as a metaphorical battle of the bands between Coriolanus/the Romans and Aufidius/the Volscians. ‘Heavy Rock Coriolanus Turns Up Volume at  Edinburgh Festival’ shouted the BBC headline.  Andrew Dickson of the Guardian, veteran reviewer of the World Shakespeare Festival and Globe to Globe, loved it, describing it as surprising, gnarly, and as adding ‘volcanic energy’ when the bands Miserable Faith and Suffogated ‘slide in periodically from the wings and punctuate the action with frenzied surges of nu-metal.’ Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph, in another thoughtful, if not so thoroughly researched, review found it an ‘arresting concept’ evoking  ‘China’s tumultuous embrace of Western influences.’  (Gardner showed her disdain by barely mentioning them.)  Many reviewers returned to this idea of Western influence in the music.  In fact, Brian G Cooper of The Stage complained that in Lin’s Coriolanus, a production transferred from Beijing (unlike the National Theatre of China’s Richard III devised for last year’s Globe to Globe) the ‘uniquely Chinese theatrical influences are conspicuously absent’ throughout. He was perhaps not aware that until very recently Chinese traditional theatre (Beijing Opera etc) and the more recognisable Chinese spoken theatre, originally a western import, have been two distinct traditions – I certainly had no awareness of this until I began researching this area. This got me thinking about the use of music, specifically, the music found in Chinese traditional theatre. These rock bands reminded me of the musicians in Beijing Opera, who often sit onstage, visible to the audience. And while British audiences expect lutes and flutes to accompany Shakespeare, Beijing Opera goes for clashing cymbals (if not thrashing guitars) whenever a General or king enters the scene.  Could this supposedly Western-style production be rather more Chinese then we give it credit for? And Andrew Dickson was onto something with his reference to nu-metal.  Rock music in China has a political heritage.  It’s first post-Cultural Revolution, Open Door Policy rock god, Cui Jian, entertained the students in Tiananmen Square, his ‘Nothing to My Name’ becoming part of the soundtrack to the demonstrations.

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Cui Jian (image from the Arts Desk website)

Which brings me to reflecting on the problems that some had in engaging with the production at all, who felt it was ‘lost in translation’. Andrew Dickson was at an advantage – he had been sent to Beijing to interview the Master Lin.  But he also has another advantage: he does his homework, finding out answers to the things he doesn’t know or doesn’t understand. This couldn’t be said of most of the reviewers on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review from the Edinburgh Festival. If I wasn’t writing this blog I would doubtless be whinging about the waste of licence fee payers’ money. Haven’t they heard of Wikipedia???  😉

Tom Sutcliffe described it as ‘a very dull production. Pu Cunxin (Coriolanus) comes to the front of the stage and many of the scenes are blocked geometrically so the characters are all speaking out at us, not addressing the characters that they are actually talking to in those scenes, and it gave it a very rigid, very formal feel which I felt just drained all the excitement out of it.’  I wondered if he had ever heard of this German bloke called Brecht and how he had gone to see this performance by this Chinese bloke called Mei Lanfang, and as a result come up with the V-Effekt…

Pu Cunxin’s ‘a bit RSC,’ continued David Schneider, ‘a bit RSC meaning he loves the costume, he loves the swagger, the swish of the cloak and standing with one leg forward and leaning on it’. Tom took it up: ‘It’s a very old kind of actor manager style. Or it looks that way to us. ‘ Ay, there’s the rub. It looks that way to us. Martin Hoyle in the FT saw ‘rhetorical moments’ which found ‘the individual actor caught in an attitude that fleetingly resembles the pose of a Victorian theatrical print or cut-out character for a toy theatre.’ And those fleeting resemblances were certainly there. But that was not all that was there.  In the swagger, the swish of the cloak, the fixed postures, were echoes of other generals from other traditions. And with contemporary spoken drama directors in China intent on Sinocizing the form, they were perhaps intentional echoes.

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

Yue Opera General, RSC website (c)

They were quite right about the crowd scenes, though.  These scenes which must have been so electrifying in Beijing were indeed ‘limp’.  Mostly young, middle class looking girls and boys with shiny hair (although not as shiny as the long locks of Suffocated headbangers) they resembled overseas students rather than democracy protesters or rioting peasants, which it turns out was exactly what they were. With one hour’s training and one rehearsal, these locally recruited extras were actually pretty good in the circumstances, if not very menacing (see linlin_peony’s response to Gardner’s review for further details.)  This is perhaps the main reason that Tom Sutcliffe and Gardner, coming from a culture where we expect our political theatre to look like and market itself like the Belarus Free Theatre,  struggled to see the politics.  Sutcliffe introduced his BBC review with ‘the production seems to studiously avoid any allusion to popular discontent in China or any direct suggestion that a notionally socialist country might have its own patrician class’. What if he had read about the original production in Beijing? In his interview with me in 2011 Lin had said, ‘In Coriolanus, I cast real min gong [migrant farm labourers] to express my ideas about society – it was my way to express who are the real heroes.’ My interpreter suggested that New China is built with their hands, although older Chinese, such as William Sun Huizhu, writing in the programme, notes that ‘My guess is that the translator Ying Ruocheng and the director Lin Zhaohua’s shared interest in this play, about a leader devoured by the masses he arrogantly believes he is leading, could be attributed to their experience in China’s Cultural Revolution.’ On Saturday Review only David Schneider got it: ‘There was for me a frisson about the politics though – there was that scene where they do discuss whether the herd, the populace, should have any rights at all and I think that if you do contextualise a Chinese director putting on Coriolanus and letting it speak for itself, for me there was a glow in those scenes.’

Which raises the question, is the problem (if there is a problem) with the production, the place of performance or the unpreparedness of the audience?

Does a play lose meaning out of its context? And should we judge it as a failure if we don’t understand it, like Sutcliffe and Gardner, or is it an opportunity to learn, and learn to appreciate a little more about what theatre is, as did so many other reviewers and spectators?

On another note, I was relieved to discover that Lin Zhaohua was no more forthcoming on the issue of politics with either Andrew Dickson or Mark Fisher of The Scotsman than he had been with me…

(You can read more on metal in China on MTV Iggy here Lin Zhaohua’s Coriolanus: Heavy Metal Shakespeare in China)

Boys will be Girls: Propeller’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’

The Winter’s Tale directed by Edward Hall and performed by  Propeller at the Sheffield Lyceum, 4th February 2012. 

My blogging time these days is largely taken up with adding transcripts and rough drafts to my private PhD blog in preparation for meeting with my Thesis Advisory Panel at the end of the summer term.  Thus, current posts here are likely to be both brief and belated.

Propeller's 'The Winter's Tale' (c) Manuel Harlan

Propeller’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (c) Manuel Harlan

 

However, I really would be missing a trick if I failed to mention the recent production of The Winter’s Tale by Propeller.

Of course, it’s not intercultural, but as with Shakesqueer, I will allow myself some leeway in my blog theme by redefining the word trans-cultural…

I had heard much about this all-male company, who resist traditional travesti performance codes by neither fully inhabiting ‘femaleness’ nor by playing the (pantomime) dame. This is not to say that there is no element of drag: even (especially) without make-up or wigs, the men’s female clothing acts to re-emphasise their maleness, be it baldness or beer-gut. However,  by acting into the words, not the ‘parts’, gender – which at the outset of the performance dominates the audience’s attention in a very simplistic way – becomes increasingly problematised.  At one level, it is an irrelevance, whilst paradoxically, at another it is intensified.

Let me try to explain what I mean through example.  Hermione, played by the shorn-headed Richard Dempsey, replete with the bulging womb of a pregnant man, is both female and male.  Standing shoulder to shoulder with his ‘wife’, Leontes’ (Robert Hands’) perverse imaginings reflect back on himself, transforming the misogynistic field of his verbal abuse into one of sexual self-loathing.  Likewise, when Hermione goes on trial, in what has become the familiar performance garb of a woman who has had her child hauled from her bloody loins, the now-blunted shock of this image is sharpened through simple defamiliarisation. Dempsey, with a man’s (the guard’s?) oversized overcoat thrown over his rags, recalls an inmate of a concentration camp, stripped of all identifying features. His (her) defence is not that of a woman against a man’s tyranny, but against tyranny itself in Sicilia.

Vince Leigh’s rugby-player Paulina stands a head above all the male courtiers and speaks half an octave lower, his/her physical dominance matched by the verbal.  Ben Allen’s roles are complex: the pyjama’d man-boy Mamillius, who opens the play bewitched by a trickle of sand, becomes Time holding an hourglass, becomes Perdita, the echo of Mamillius in a dress.

Perdita and Florizel (c) Manuel Harlan

Perdita and Florizel (c) Manuel Harlan

In Bohemia, nothing is as it seems, and in this production the doubleness of this apparently bucolic paradise is doubly emphasised – and quite hilariously.  The all singing, all dancing sheep are cross-dressing men in wooly wigs and miniskirts (if  my memory serves me correctly), Camillo and Polixenes infiltrate the Glastonbury Sheep-Shearing Fest as Arkela and Brown Owl, and I’m really not sure whether Autolycus is Tom Jones or Alice Cooper.  Richard Dempsey returns as Dorcas, this time in lipstick and golden tresses and festival wellies.  And this time he really is transformed into a rather attractive and convincing woman, but this in itself, in the context of this company and this production, ensures that we never forget that he really isn’t.  However, if you ask me, Perdita and Florizel really are two boys in love, adding a whole new level of transgression to their already transgressive relationship.  Except the transgression is not on the stage but in the eyes of the spectators.

By focussing on gender representation (or non-representation), I have of course only engaged with one facet of this production.  However, it seems to me that companies like Propeller and Two Gents Productions (coming soon!) are bringing an immediacy to Shakespeare through crossing gender boundaries in the same way that transcultured productions are actually bringing Shakespeare home.

Sheep-sheering festival (c) Manuel Harlan

Sheep-sheering festival (c) Manuel Harlan