Research in Action: Performing Gender on the Indoor Stage

Performing Gender: Shakespeare's Globe

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 7 May 2015)

We all know that in Shakespeare’s day women weren’t allowed on the stage. Recently several productions have tried to recreate the flavour of those original performances: Mark Rylance’s Twelfth Night and Richard III productions come to mind. But even these don’t give an accurate flavour of what Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would have seen. Female roles were played by young boys aged between 12 and 22 years old, highly skilled actors who would specialise in playing women until at a certain stage they were no longer able to convince with the illusion (many ended up transitioning across the gender divide and took on male roles within the company).

Modern theatre companies are happy to put on all-male adult casts, or even all-child casts (the Globe’s own company of young players has presented two productions: The Malcontent and Dido, Queen of Carthage, both of which I missed, annoyingly). But, perhaps for obvious reasons, no one has yet put on a production with genuinely original practice, with an adolescent boy playing a woman opposite an adult man. Enter the Globe’s research department, stage left. They constantly strive to explore what early modern theatre might have felt, looked and sounded like. For example, they ask questions about the brightness of the candles and the way music was used; later this year they’ll explore the way that ‘outdoor’ scenes were represented on indoor stages, and take a closer look at bedroom scenes in Jacobean plays.

On Thursday night, they turned their quizzing-glass on the subject of gender. They chose three scenes from well-known Jacobean and Caroline drama: one from The Duchess of Malfi, one from The White Devil, and one from ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Each of the scenes showed the female character in a slightly different light and at a different level of power. In Malfi, the young Duchess is entirely in control as she makes a proposal of marriage to her unwitting steward Antonio. In The White Devil, Isabella pursues her adulterous husband to Rome, only to find herself repudiated with scorn. In ‘Tis Pity, Soranzo erupts with violent rage as he discovers that his new wife Annabella is already pregnant (little realising that the father of her child is her own brother).

Each scene was played twice, back-to-back. Each time the male role was taken by the same actor – the very talented David Oakes (whom I last saw as a captivating Kit Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love and who gets immediate Brownie points for having also played Juan Borgia). And the female role was played once by an adult woman (Beth Park) and once by a 15-year-old boy from the Young Players company (Guy Amos).

All three actors were brilliant, of course. Seeing these scenes with full costume, wigs and make-up in the warm candlelight of the Playhouse only blurred the lines even further. Amos might only be 15, but he’s been with the Globe for some years and he had formidable poise. The most interesting thing (for me) was that, while seeing a man playing a woman can often come across as camp, that wasn’t at all the case with a boy. Amos wasn’t necessarily trying to sound like a woman – he wasn’t speaking in falsetto – but a 15-year-old’s voice, by its very nature, is lighter and has a very different sound to that of a grown man. I was also intrigued to see how he moved and stood. When standing still he instinctively adopted a very straight, modest pose with hands neatly clasped in front of his skirts. He explained later that this was because of the corset: ‘I can’t slouch. And it feels really uncomfortable to have my hands hanging at my side.’ One of the Globe’s research team jumped in: ‘It was considered shocking for a woman to stand with her hands at her side.’ Both Park and Amos jumped and quickly clasped their hands primly at their waists). But when Amos was acting, he often moved with a slight strut or swagger: the natural cockiness of a young lad.

The scene from ‘Tis Pity was also extremely interesting. This is an immensely violent scene and Amos was on first. There were sharp intakes of breath as Oakes, as Soranzo, stormed through the doorway gripping Amos by the scruff of his neck and hurled him to the ground; Amos fell flat on his front and, thanks to his silk skirts, slid almost the entire width of the stage. Later in the scene he’s thrown down again. When Park came on, she too was thrown down, but it somehow seemed less violent; although Oakes added a moment with her that he’d avoided with Amos, grabbing her by the throat up against the wall. The audience reaction to that scene was telling. We all felt that Oakes had felt freer to be rough with Amos, because he was a boy and there was that element of rough-and-tumble between two blokes; whereas he was holding back slightly with Park.

When questioned, however, Oakes laughed: it was actually the opposite. He’d actually unleashed much more violence on Park, whom he knew had been trained in stage combat and was able to protect herself. Amos hadn’t been trained, so Oakes had been very conscious throughout of trying to protect him. But that in itself shows that audiences are affected by their own social expectations. We thought it was more acceptable to see two men having a scuffle on stage. But Oakes put it in another light. “So you think it’s more acceptable to see a grown man beating up a child than a woman?” Hmm. Good point. I’m not sure that anyone in that theatre actually remembered how young Amos was, because he was acting with such self-assurance.

One thing – an obvious thing – did strike me about this ‘Tis Pity scene. The whole scene centres on the fact that Annabella is pregnant. Neither actor made it explicit, but Park seemed more conscious of this fact. Whether that’s because she was consciously trying to suggest it, or because it was innate, she instinctively seemed to protect her stomach – unlike Amos she didn’t fall flat, and when she taunted Soranzo at the end, she did so on her knees rather than, like Amos, lying on her back with arms spread.

The fascinating thing was that Amos’ different approach didn’t undermine the illusion of femininity, but simply gave it a different emphasis. It worked remarkably well in the scene from The Duchess of Malfi. Here Amos’s youthful masculine self-confidence gave the Duchess a real aura of power and authority, whereas when Park played the role she gave the Duchess a sweetness, flutteriness and fragility. Oakes, playing Antonio to both, confessed that opposite Amos he had felt an uncomfortable sense of being dominated by this boy who was half his age. Amos’s youth was cancelled out by his own consciousness of his social status. He also had a mischievous approach to the scene that Park played down: Amos’s Duchess gives Antonio the ring before telling him that she’d only part with it to her second husband. It imposes her decision on Antonio. Park’s Duchess explained before handing over the ring, giving Antonio the choice whether to take it or not. Similarly, while the boy had a sense of dominance that the woman didn’t, the woman implied a sense of flirtation and sexual frisson that was absent from the boy’s scene. These are two very different forms of power being used: social and sexual, but in both scenes Antonio is conquered by them.

Oakes is an actor who’s used to playing opposite women who are women. How would the experience be different for an adult male actor who was used to his ‘women’ being played by teenage boys? It’s hard to know. When asked how much the gender thing mattered, Oakes said that he’d spoken to colleagues who’d worked on all-male productions and they’d said you actually forgot about gender entirely after a while. It was about acting opposite a person rather than a gender – you reacted to the personality or the stage character, not the fact of its masculinity or femininity. One of the experts noted that in the late 16th and early 17th century, clothing was even more important than it is today. The existence of sumptuary laws reflected the fact that people placed so much emphasis on costume and dress. For audiences of this date, if a boy was up on a stage dressed as a woman, they would have accepted him as a woman in the context of the play (even though they would have known he wasn’t; if that makes any sense).

So interesting, not just from a theatrical point of view but also thinking about early operas and the fact that young castrati (of pretty much Amos’s age) would have made their debut in female roles. The key legacy of this event for me will be the realisation that a boy probably wouldn’t have played a woman weakly, as I might have imagined before: seeing Amos commanding the stage as the Duchess, I realised that actually these lads would have given these female roles a steely inner strength. (‘How did it feel to have him throwing you around?’ someone asked Amos after ‘Tis Pity. ‘Well of course I wanted to get up and square off to him,’ he said with a shrug. ‘But I had to think, what would I do as a woman?’)

It was an evening that really raised a lot more tantalising questions to think about. I hope that one day the Globe decide to do a whole production with this kind of original casting. It is different seeing a boy play a woman, rather than a young man in his mid-twenties, which is what I’ve seen before. Amos and his colleagues are not shrinking violets to be protected: they are thoroughly aware of the texts and the roles and, if Amos is any guide, they’re formidably accomplished actors. Seeing them (briefly) take back the roles they’d have had in an original Shakespearean company might turn an exciting and different light on the female characters in these plays.

3 thoughts on “Research in Action: Performing Gender on the Indoor Stage

  1. la Clarina says:

    Quite fascinating.
    This is something I have often wondered about – also considering that back then audiences would have no comparable experience of female roles played by women…
    Thank you for sharing the experience.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you for your comment, Clara! One of the academics, interestingly, explained that people at this period *would* have seen female performers, but not on the stage – they said that at some court events, masques, or even in the streets or in alehouses, people would have had the chance to see women taking on dramatic roles, so we're not necessarily dealing with a situation where the only dramatic representation of femininity was by boys. Nevertheless, if you go to a proper theatrical performance *knowing* that the women will be played by boys, then of course you suspend disbelief and judge the performances by the criteria of that particular dramatic form – as you say. One can never recreate what it *really* felt like for people at the time because our contexts and expectations are so very different. But this was a darn good attempt. I'm so looking forward to going to more of these events!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Oh, I would have LOVED to see this – I remember when the Globe Twitter account retweeted the photo above. Thank you so much for writing in such detail about it.

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