Feminist Shakespeare

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Buzz Goodbody's As You Like It

When Josie Rourke’s King John followed Marianne Elliot’s Much Ado About Nothing into The Swan Theatre as part of the RSC’s 2006 Complete Works Festival the theatre critic, Michael Billington, said we are witnessing the emergence of  a powerful new generation of female classical directors.’ Five years on and Josie Rourke’s new production of Much Ado is a hit in London’s Wyndham’s Theatre, Gemma Bodinetz got rave reviews for her production of Macbeth at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre in May, as did Lucy Bailey with hers at The Globe last year, and we’ve got Roxana Silbert’s Measure For Measure and Nancy Meckler’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to look forward to at the RSC.

It’s easy to forget how recently women broke through to the top jobs. The first woman to direct Shakespeare at The RSC was Buzz Goodbody with As You Like It in 1973 but things moved more slowly at The National Theatre. Cicely Berry directed Hamlet in the Cottesloe in 1986 followed by Deborah Warner’s King Lear in the Lyttelton in 1990 but it was as late as 1994 before Phyllida Lloyd finally made it onto the main Olivier stage with Pericles.

That early generation of female directors were feminists at a time when feminist theory was entering mainstream Shakespeare scholarship. Feminism struggled with Shakespeare; for every Germaine Greer, who adores him, there were others for whom the idea of studying the canonical work of dead white males was a disservice to the marginalised, unrecorded lives and work of women. But for people like Buzz Goodbody, Di Trevis, Kathryn Hunter, Phyllida Lloyd, Deborah Warner, Jude Kelly and Nancy Meckler, directing the country’s greatest poet on its national stages was a political act and part of a wider campaign for gender equality.

And that campaign was largely successful. Women now run several major theatres; Vicky Featherstone is artistic director at The National Theatre of Scotland, Gemma Bodinetz is the artistic director at the Liverpool Everyman, Josie Rourke runs The Bush Theatre in London and Rachel Kavanaugh recently stood down at The Birmingham Rep where she  will be replaced by Roxana Silbert. But there’s still never been a woman in charge at the National Theatre, the RSC, The Royal Court, or many of our regional theatres.

These days many younger directors demand the right to be seen simply as a director without a gender qualifier or an assumed political position. But they don’t all want to do Shakespeare. Vicky Featherstone has a background in new writing and she appears to have no Shakespeare on her CV. When Thea Sharrock was offered her first and only Shakespeare production, As You Like It at The Globe in 2009, she was reluctant to take it on and Dominic Dromgoole had to talk her into it . Katie Mitchell directed Henry VI Part 3 at the RSC in 1994 and has never done another one, claiming to be, ‘really foxed by Shakespeare and Emma Rice did a wonderful Cymbeline with her Kneehigh company but only as adapted by her long-term collaborator, Carl Grose.

Does it mean anything any more to talk about a female or feminist interpretation of Shakespeare? There are still more men running theatres than women and more productions by male than female directors but do you think gender affects either the production or your experience of it?

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Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England
  • Andrew Cowie

    Thanks for the comment, Julia and congratulations on that historic first! I teach drama at university and my female students are always amazed at how recently the equalities they take for granted were won so it’s good to keep these things on record.

  • Julia Pascal

    I was the first woman to direct at The National Theatre with my adaptation of Dorothy Parker’s work. This was the Platform Performance Men Seldom Make Passes. It played during 1978-80.

  • Chriswind3

    thought readers of this post (and visitors to your site) might be interested in “Soliloquies: the lady doth indeed protest” (kindle, smashwords, etc) – here’s the blurb:

    MacBeth kill herself?  Please.  And Portia – you don’t think someone that
    intelligent would be a little pissed at being bait, and trophy?  And Juliet, well, Juliet just wants to have –

    Soliloquies: the lady doth indeed protest is a collection of soliloquies by Ophelia, Lady
    MacBeth, Regan, Portia, Desdemona, Kate, Isabella, Juliet, Marina, and Miranda
    – protesting the role given to them by Shakespeare.


    Exquisite poetry.  Fresh new audition pieces.


  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    Thanks for that thoughtful response, Ty. I think if people are treated differently then they will learn to behave differently in response to the way they are treated so the greater equality we have the less relevance gender, ethnicity or other social identifiers have. There was an interesting argument in the UK a couple of years ago when the artistic director of The National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, accused theatre critics of sexism: ( http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/stage/article1785100.ece ) but in that instance I think they were responding to the name on the programme, not the work on stage. 

  • Ty Unglebower

    I think a person’s life experience and perceptions by nature informs how both they direct a production and how they view it when in an audience. In that sense, the female director is going to bring something different to their production than a male director would. Yet I would not assume that the nature of that difference is specifically oriented towards gender issues/roles. I would simply deduce that like a million and one other things which make up a life, a person’s experience with their gender would of course have something to do with their overall artistic opus.

    So, assuming that a person has no agenda to be specifically “feminist” in the political sense when they direct a production, a woman directing a play would not, to me, affect my specific views of said production.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    Thanks for adding to the list Sylvia! The blog started turning into a ‘if I mention so and so I can’t leave out such and such’ exercise so I left Gale Edwards out because she’s not British and Jude Kelly because she’s now running the Southbank Centre which isn’t strictly speaking a theatre but I’m happy to be corrected and to include them along with Janet Suzman and Janice Honeyman.  My own feeling is that you’d struggle to group the work of female directors in any meaningful way and when Nicholas Hytner stepped in to defend the women directing at The National Theatre in 2007 ( http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/stage/article1785100.ece ) the critics he was attacking were responding to the name on the programme, not the work on stage.

  • Anonymous

    A few more women directors of Shakespeare include Gale Edwards, Janet Suzman and Janice Honeyman. And Jude Kelly has a lot of experience running a theatre as well as directing for it. It must be different if the director’s a woman, especially for the women in the cast, but I doubt if you can just walk in and spot one. I’m sure Carol Rutter’s got an opinion!

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