Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Gender-Reversed Midsummer Night’s Dream – Pleasance Theatre, London

[seen 20/03/16]

“Gender-reversed” Shakespeare always needs a bit of explaining, as to which sort of gender-reversal it is. In this instance, it means that all the female parts are played by men, and all the male parts are played by women. The genders have also been switched in the script (although, annoyingly, the names haven’t; so you have to do the mental gymnastics that make “Helena” a man’s name and “Demetrius” a woman’s, rather than simply changing them to Demetria and, er, Helenus). The “male” actors play their characters play their characters “as men”, and the “female” actors perform their characters “as female” (I’ll stop with the scare-quotes now, but let’s just acknowledge that this is a problematically binary account of gender, and I don’t know the trans*status of any of the performers, or anything, which feels at least like a thing that should be acknowledged – like “reversed” already contains a bit of a problematic implication that genders definitive and opposites rather than a series of negotiated positions in a constellation).

Having spent the last review worrying at race, it’s disconcerting to discover that everyone on stage here is white (8/8) and all doing at least excellent impressions of being pretty privileged. (Indeed, when Duchess Theseus says “I have some private schooling for you both” I *might* have inadvertently snorted.) But, since we’re being hyper-aware of power-imbalances, let’s also note that I’m probably getting on for twice the age of anyone/everyone in this company. Yes, they’re all white, and *sound* quite posh, but so am I, and I’m twice their age, so let’s not get too arch here. At least they’re doing work about gender, right?

There is also the slight problem, that some of the actors here are better than others. I guess that’s an occupational hazard of young fringe companies, but occasionally here it obscures intent. Similarly, the school-of-Shakespeare production that the direction seems to conjure is maybe a *bit* too much of the “text, clarity and volume” school, which always feels particularly unnecessary in small fringe venues. Still, no names, no pack drill, etc.

So, ok, it’s not *a great production*. But at the same time it really is properly fascinating. And, as such, I quite think it’s an experiment worth persisting with. The only comparable production I’ve seen was a completely unspeakable gender-swapped Tempest at the Cock Tavern, which, as well as being abysmally acted also ran up against the sheer difficulty of having to rethink the whole of renaissance Italian history on the basis that it had been a matriarchal society. Here the cuts to the script and the modern-ish/no-period dress banish our problems with conceiving of this period Athens. Here instead are just mostly women, and a couple of blokes (there’s a lot of doubling), telling a new version of the story.

Perhaps the most interesting decision here is to carry-over our contemporary performances of gender in everyday life into the piece. Therefore, _ _ as H__ and Titania is still a big, bluff, posh bloke. A sort of rugby type with a beard (but all young men have got a beard now, it seems). It’s amazing how just these facts make you appreciate the differences that “men” and “women” likely experience in their everyday lives. In short, this bloke look like he can look after himself. He looks like he’d win a majority of fights. His situation, say, in terms of domestic violence, looks pretty solid. So, male-Titania – surprise, surprise – seems to carry over an advantage, so that now female-Oberon looks like she’s on the back foot.

Similarly, we see how much even contemporary productions of MSND actually subconsciously rely on rather dated clichés of male/female sexuality – that men will basically fuck anything at the drop of a hat, and women generally won’t. I mean, don’t we believe the original Bottom seduction scene, largely because we reckon Bottom just would, right? Whereas, as soon as Bottom is a woman, it becomes a pretty unconvincing seduction, although here it was still played with pretty much the same dynamic as the original, and _ _ as Bottom maybe just failed to find any kind of convincing motivation for her weaver’s lust, just as _ _ failed to provide any spur for it.

Oddly, the scenes with female parents didn’t seem that much more incredible, except for the threats of violence and death. Which was again interesting, but I wonder if other actors could have created more convincing versions of a female parent who would threaten her son with death. There is still, here, the problem that the production doesn’t always fully inhabit even its own world.

So, yes. Not only does this version confront us with our perhaps rather arch ideas of what Shakespeare’s gender-politics are like, but also with some very interesting questions about those of our own age (and maybe just occasionally about the company’s too). It’s fascinating to have seen this in the same week as Filter’s version at the Lyric, and even more so to see it ahead of Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s all-out assault on Hamlet/Shakespeare’s misogyny, and the centuries of misogyny in performance that the play has occasioned.

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