Fea­ture Why more women are tak­ing on Shake­speare

More women are tack­ling Shake­speare – both on­stage and be­hind the scenes JON KA­PLAN

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MEA­SURE FOR MEA­SURE by Wil­liam Shake­speare, di­rected by Tyler Seguin, with Jack­lyn Fran­cis, Deb­o­rah Drake­ford, He­len Ju­vo­nen, Leah Holder, Cather­ine McNally and Mar­garet La­marre. Pre­sented by Thought for Food at the Red Sand­cas­tle (922 Queen East). Opens Thurs­day (Novem­ber 24) and runs to De­cem­ber 4, Tues­day-Sun­day 7:30 pm. $25, stu $20.


“The play’s the thing,” says Shake­speare’s most fa­mous char­ac­ter.

But if you’re a fe­male di­rec­tor or ac­tor, Hamlet and other scripts by the Bard are usu­ally out of reach. Few women get the chance to di­rect one of his plays, nor have they been able to take on some of his best parts.

That’s not to deny the chal­lenge of play­ing such fe­male char­ac­ters as Ros­alind in As You Like It, Juliet, Lady Macbeth and Cleopa­tra. But it’s rare for a woman to have the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore, for in­stance, any of Shake­speare’s top four tragic fig­ures: Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello.

With a sense of ex­plo­ration in mind, Thought for Food Pro­duc­tions takes a new look at the Bard’s Mea­sure For Mea­sure, in which the Duke of Vi­enna ab­sents him­self from the city, hand­ing au­thor­ity to the chaste, strict An­gelo. When a young novi­tiate nun, Is­abella, pleads with An­gelo for the life of her jailed brother, Clau­dio, she un­in­ten­tion­ally arouses An­gelo’s sex­ual de­sire.

Di­rec­tor Tyler Seguin is one of only two men in­volved with the show; the other 15 artists are all women – the en­tire cast and most of those be­hind the scenes.

“Ac­tor Toni Ell­wand pitched the idea to us,” says the com­pany’s He­len Ju­vo­nen, who plays Is­abella. “She’d been in an all­fe­male Julius Cae­sar a few years ago, a show whose goal was partly to get more women speak­ing clas­si­cal text.” (Toronto di­rec­tor Vinetta Strombergs helmed an­other such pro­duc­tion in 1986.)

“With Mea­sure, though, we also get to look at lots of im­port­ ant con­tem­po­rary is­sues: gen­der pol­i­tics, sex­u­al­ity in gen­eral and the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of women’s sex­u­al­ity in par­tic­u­lar.

“Work­ing with a fe­male cast high­lights how women are treated not just in the world of the play but also in today’s world. As we re­hearsed, we kept find­ing par­al­lels to the U.S. elec­tion, es­pe­cially af­ter Trump talked about grop­ing. Though she’s strong and smart, Is­abella has lit­tle agency in the story; the Duke, An­gelo and her brother all use her.”

The show, set dur­ing the Weimar era in Ger­many, has the frame of a women’s cabaret whose mem­bers are stag­ing Mea­sure.

“That al­lows us to keep the pro­nouns as Shake­speare wrote them. We want the ac­tors to find their own

take on their char­ac­ters, whether they’re mas­cu­line, fem­i­nine or am­bigu­ous. The set­ting al­lows us to be play­ful with the fig­ures and the cross­dress­ing.”

Ju­vo­nen ad­mits that the text is dif­fi­cult, both in terms of lan­guage and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, and she’s amazed to watch how her fel­low ac­tors tackle the script’s com­plex­i­ties.

“Oc­ca­sion­ally there are mo­ments when ac­tors re­al­ize that as women play­ing male roles, they’re ini­tially un­cer­tain how to read a scene. Jackie Fran­cis, who’s play­ing the Duke, never thought she’d have a chance to take on the role and had no pre­con­cep­tions about how to cre­ate it. On the other hand, I came to Is­abella with all sorts of ideas.”

Hav­ing only women on­stage also changes the dy­nam­ics of the stag­ing, points out Ju­vo­nen.

“For in­stance, when An­gelo be­comes phys­i­cal with Is­abella, there’s al­ways a ques­tion about how in­va­sive he can be. Work­ing with Deb­o­rah Drake­ford as An­gelo, I felt a safety in ex­plor­ing the phys­i­cal­ity of those mo­ments.”

While the cast­ing of this ver­sion of Mea­sure is un­usual, it isn’t unique; fe­male ac­tors are get­ting more chances to ex­plore male roles.

Au­di­ences saw some high­pow­ered women play­ing male and fe­male roles this past sum­mer at Strat­ford, in Breath Of Kings, Gra­ham Abbey’s adap­ta­tion of four Shake­speare his­tory plays. Irene Poole, Kate Hen­nig, Carly Street, Anus­ree Roy, Mikaela Davies and oth­ers shone in mostly sub­sidiary parts.

I wish at least one of them had been given one of the pro­duc­tion’s cen­tral roles. Seana McKenna was an amaz­ing Richard III at the 2011 fes­ti­val.

There’s more of this sort of cast­ing com­ing up. Groundling Theatre is pre­sent­ing an­other ver­sion of Mea­sure in Jan­uary, with Lucy Pea­cock play­ing the Duchess of Vi­enna (rather than the Duke).

Ac­tor Al­le­gra Ful­ton, who played Cas­sius in Shake­speare in High Park’s 2014 Julius Cae­sar, points out that cross­gen­der cast­ing is of­ten seen as some­thing that only came about with late 20th cen­tury fem­i­nism, but in fact it dates back hun­dreds of years.

“What was re­ally in­ter­est­ing for me in work­ing on Cas­sius was tap­ping into the du­al­ity we have as hu­man be­ings, re­al­iz­ing that we all have within us mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine en­er­gies that change all the time, de­pend­ing on cul­ture, his­tor­i­cal pe­riod and other fac­tors. In his writ­ing, Shake­speare ex­plored that du­al­ity in an en­trenched pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tem.”

The six women play­ing male roles in di­rec­tor Estelle Shook’s pro­duc­tion of­ten found their re­hearsal work un­set­tling.

“We re­al­ized there were some re­ally weird mo­ments and un­cer­tainty about how to play the parts. Go­ing gen­der­neu­tral, we agreed, wasn’t the way.

“I was os­ten­si­bly play­ing a man with­out try­ing to be a man. The text, the con­struc­tion of the scenes, the thoughts that Cas­sius had, all led me to take up more space in the re­hearsal room than I’m used to do­ing as a woman, but it was some­thing I wouldn’t apol­o­gize for.”

Even so, Ful­ton ad­mits that it was still for­eign for her, de­spite the fact that tak­ing on an­other’s per­sona is what she does as an ac­tor.

“At times I felt I was do­ing the worst ma­cho male act­ing, but the sheer size of the text and Cas­sius’s thoughts even­tu­ally made me re­al­ize that I was

mak­ing the right choices.”

And what about women di­rect­ing Shake­speare? Bir­git Schreyer Duarte, Shook and Keira Loughran have helmed pro­duc­tions for Cana­dian Stage’s Shake­speare in High Park, while Martha Henry and Weyni Menge­sha have mounted Shake­speare at Strat­ford.

“But not all women are part of Shake­speare’s world in a way they want to be,” says di­rec­tor Carly Cham­ber­lain, whose pro­duc­tion of Much Ado About Noth­ing just closed at Hart House. It’s been a decade since a woman di­rected Shake­speare there.

Cham­ber­lain started di­rect­ing be­cause, though she had acted in Shake­speare pro­duc­tions and played roles like Is­abella and Twelfth Night’s Olivia, she was never sat­is­fied.

“Look­ing back on it, I think it’s be­cause most of Shake­speare’s women, even the big­ger roles, are ex­clu­sively writ­ten to be re­ac­tive rather than pro­ac­tive.

“It’s hard as an ac­tor only to play roles in which you have lit­tle agency and are solely re­spond­ing to male char­ac­ters. I don’t want to tell sto­ries only from the male view­point.”

In her Much Ado, the watch, usu­ally a group of men, was made up of women; the play’s vil­lain, Don John, was also a woman. Cham­ber­lain set the play in the 1940s, a con­text that had the male char­ac­ters ini­tially off at war and women fill­ing in for them. Rec­og­niz­ing that the other char­ac­ters and the au­di­ence saw women in those roles, she changed the pro­nouns.

“Usu­ally Much Ado has some 15 dudes and about four women, only two of them cen­tral. That’s not real life, but peo­ple usu­ally don’t ques­tion the cast­ing.”

Cham­ber­lain talked about her pro­duc­tion ideas with a male di­rec­tor who dis­missed her con­cepts. “‘Just put aside the gen­der pol­i­tics; it’s a play about love,’” he told her.

“No, it’s not. What I’ve ob­served as a woman is that love and pol­i­tics are in­ter­twined, and in a play like this one where the lovers don’t have the same amount of agency, pol­i­tics is in­ex­tri­ca­ble from the love story.

“That’s what I bring to this play as a woman. I am the lens for the sto­ry­telling and bring my ex­pe­ri­ence of the world with me.”

Jack­lyn Fran­cis (left), He­len Ju­vo­nen and Stephanie Folkins star in the wom­en­dom­i­nated Mea­sure For Mea­sure.

Les­ley Robert­son and other women dom­i­nated re­cent Much Ado at Hart House.

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