Sitting in the dark: the importance of light in theatre

I’ve spent a lot of the past year sitting in the dark – literally. For people who work in theatre, this may come as no surprise. In the eight years I spent working full-time as a lighting assistant/production electrician, I could quite easily go for three or four days in a row without seeing any sunlight. I’ve often thought it odd that the people who “create” light for live performance, people who use light as their primary creative medium, spend so much time in the dark. If you’re unfamiliar with the theatre production process, here’s a (very brief and very simplified!) rundown:
In most regional and London producing theatres, work on a production begins about four to six months prior to the first preview. This can be significantly longer on larger shows, particularly those in the West End. About a week before the first preview, the cast, director, and design team move into the theatre space itself to start technical rehearsals. By this stage, the set has been built, costumes made, lights and speakers rigged, etc. The technical rehearsal is the start of what is called the production week (also known as “hell week” in some American theatres on account of the long days). Technical rehearsals are the only time the entire company is together in the performance space, and they are – as the name suggests – focused primarily on the technical and design elements of a production. Technical rehearsals are often very “stop and start” as cues, scene changes, costume changes, etc. are run multiple times until all parties are comfortable. Once the whole production is worked through in this manner, this is followed by a dress rehearsal (often two or three, plus notes sessions) before the first public performance.

The lighting designer

For a lighting designer, the first day of technical rehearsals is often the most difficult. All of the lighting designer’s pre-production research, the conversations they have had with the designer, director and theatre’s head of lighting, and the plans they have drawn and had implemented by the theatre’s lighting department converge on this day, and there is enormous pressure on the lighting designer to “get it right” – funding situations in most UK theatres are such that time, money and resources are at a premium and at this point there is not enough of any of those to start over or make significant changes. This pressure is compounded by the fact that lighting is the sole visual design element that can only be created in the performance space. During the pre-production period, set designers produce a scale modelbox, alongside technical drawings, sketches and storyboards, and costume designers may use artistic drawings in conjunction with fabric swatches, for example, to help articulate their process and creative ideas. For both set and costume design, the actual product is built over several weeks and can be seen as a work-in-progress during this time. Moreover, the materials of set and costume design are tangible and the work can be observed, commented on, tweaked and refined outside and, crucially, before entering the actual performance space. Similar comparisons and tools do not exist for lighting designers. Computer visualisation software may be used; however, these programs rarely provide the detail needed to fully explain, describe or develop the potential of light outside a performance space.
In addition, these days tend to involve the most negotiation and adjustment as creative teams (especially the lighting designer) learn to navigate the “language” and “grammar” of a production, while also refining the spoken language and grammar they use to articulate it. It is this process that my research focuses on. How do lighting designers use language to articulate ideas about light and lighting, a material and a process that is largely intangible? How do they additionally use language to exercise agency and exert influence in situations of creative collaboration?

My research

To answer these questions, I sit in the dark, behind the lighting designer, armed with two recording devices. One of these records the ambient conversation, usually between the director or designer and the lighting designer. The other records the conversation on “cans” (UK theatre slang for the headsets worn by all members of the design and technical teams to facilitate conversation without having to resort to shouting backstage!).
The darkness provides an ideal environment for conducting my fieldwork. Even though I am acting as an “overt insider” (Merton, 1972; Greene, 2014), the darkness makes it possible for me to fade into the background and remain largely unnoticed by the people I am observing – which is simultaneously useful and disconcerting. There is something anonymising about the dark, but it can also be quite liberating. There’s plenty of interesting research on audience behaviour and fascinating studies on people’s behaviour generally in the dark — but for now, I’ll just say what an illuminating (see what I did there?) experience sitting in the dark has been!
Greene, M.J. 2014. On the inside looking in: methodological insights and challenges in conducting qualitative insider research. The Qualitative Report. 19(How To Article 15), pp.1–13.
Merton, R.K. 1972. Insiders and outsiders: a chapter in the sociology of knowledge.American Journal of Sociology. 78(1), pp.9–47.

A woman’s place is in the kitchen?

The Rise of the Chef: The Skill of Cooking Becomes More Complicated

by Mary Farrell.

Women have always been involved with food: gathering food; growing food; processing food; cooking food; presenting food; feeding their families. This is something that is true across the world and throughout history. Yet in many societies, indeed most, women have tended to be poorly represented at higher-status activities associated with food. Think of the Michelin chefs, famous chefs, head chefs – do we automatically think of men? It is fascinating that, even in societies in which women are considered “liberated” from the restraints of traditional gender mores, and protected at work from the most egregious cases of gender discrimination, women are significantly under-represented as top chefs, and women’s writing about food has been typically relegated to the areas of domestic and family life. Even now, it seems that men’s involvement with food, whether in preparing it or writing about it in the public realm is seen as having more gravitas; as being, almost by definition, higher status. The question is why this is the case? How did it all get so confused? After all, women remain the predominant cooks in the domestic setting. In order to understand the particularity of this phenomenon we must look back through history in order to understand the curious state of affairs we now find ourselves in.


Illustration by Rita Blair

The Creation of the ‘Le Chef’

It is during the 17th century we witness the emergence of the concept ‘The Chef’. Early chefs were members of the military and were exclusively men when, in the 17th century, the landed nobility began to rely on chefs to prepare food. The employment of a man in this capacity was seen as a sign of one’s status at that time[1]. As chefs began to take on more power in shaping the cultural and culinary world around them, they searched for ways to separate cuisine with a high social value, or haute cuisine, from the everyday, and little valued, cookery of women[2].

It is also at this time, the era of the Industrial Revolution, that we see the emergence of two distinct spheres, the domestic/private/feminine on the one hand, and the professional /public/masculine on the other. Prior to this, most women and men’s lives overlapped. Most work was carried out around the home where women were the primary food providers and caretakers while also taking part in home-based manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution relegated women to the private realm of household management, child rearing and religious education, as factories split the family unit. Working-class men worked in the mines, mills, and workshops and women remained in the home with the farm and family, creating the concept of “homemaker”. This division reinforced an already gendered world by identifying separate spheres, unequally weighted in favour of the masculine and the public. This dichotomy prevails to this day and continues to underpin our understanding of the public/private realms and the concepts of masculine and feminine.

This gendered division of the skill of cooking, aided by the rise of separate spheres for men and women, prevented women from participating in the growing restaurant industry in Europe (Ferguson 2004). Men controlled the means of professional legitimation such as authoring cookbooks, teaching at culinary schools, and exhibiting at culinary expositions thereby juxtaposing men in the role of ‘‘educator’’, and their women audience members as ‘‘students’’, helping to institutionalise the exclusion of women from professional cooking (Ferguson 2004).

The terms ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ are directly related to the separation of the public and the private sphere. The chef means “chef de cuisine” or “head of the kitchen” and related directly to the métier of food preparation in the professional public sphere. The term cook is understood more as much more working class, understood as being a nose-to-the-grindstone worker, a cog in a wheel. The chef is a professional who goes through proper training and rises in the ranks of a military system, a term historically associated with men, whereas the cook is self-taught, home-schooled, working by instinct and has historically been associated with women and the private sphere. A chef is granted higher public status and the freedom to be creative and imaginative with their food; a cook may only be responsible for following the chef’s recipes and produce food. In Ratatouille, Revel believes that the raw edible materials in the hands of “mothers” can lead to some fine “craftsmanship” but not great art, whereas the chefs have to transcend everyday methods to realise a grand cuisine which should be restricted only to professionals, who are undoubtedly men. When Colette asks Linguini “How many women do you see in this kitchen?” her response is illuminating,

“Because Haute Cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world…” People think haute cuisine is snooty, so the chef needs to be snooty”[3].

Colette reveals that cuisine is associated with high culture and the world of the professional man whereas cooking is associated with working class people and women’s work. This hierarchical stance creates binaries – art/craft, cultivated or educated professional cuisines /local cooking, and male chefs/female cooks. This dichotomous relationship is played out in the world of the professional chef, where women and men are judged according to their gendered understanding of the skill of cooking within our culture, to women’s disadvantage[4]. The most recent academic work researching women chefs found that females are overly represented at the cook level and underrepresented at the head chef level, questioning whether the gendered understanding of chef and cooks reveal a bias against women based on their gender and historic hierarchical structures[5].


Illustration by Rita Blair

With the emergence of modern feminism, the predominant representations of the domestic are of oppression, entrapment, tyranny, enslavement; “captive wives and housebound mothers”. Women are portrayed as victims, subjects of male action and female biology, removing women’s agency and dismissing the domestic and the myriad of important actions that take place within this space. Betty Freidman argued in The Feminine Mystique that the domestic was contrary to the aims of feminism.  As a result, the relationship between the female, food and the domestic has long been identified as oppressive; a representation of powerlessness.  This has excluded the female in the domestic space from telling her story, who, while working within this private sphere was able to carve out her own area of power and independence. The greater intimacy, the very domesticity that is often seen to relegate women’s involvement with food to a “lower” level, also means that their cooking, writing and talk of food are rich with social context in the way that more formal involvement often is not, giving us abundant insight not just into their own and their family’s lives, but to social mores and historical context.

In recent years, food studies and third wave feminists have helped to open up the domestic space to further investigation, allowing us to recognise the significant lives of women in the domestic spheres. By conceptualising the kitchen as a space as opposed to a place, we can represent a site of multiple changing levels and degrees of freedom, self-awareness, subjectivity and agency.  Here, food studies uncover a relationship with food and the domestic that reveals “opportunities” to demonstrate creativity and skill, and accruing value within families and communities and increasing opportunities to express resistance and power; it permits a revision of the text to allow for more a “more nuanced, culturally inclusive consideration”, suggesting that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom and power for women even as it constrained them in other ways[6].

My PhD key factors for the gender disparity in head chef positions in the  restaurant industry in Ireland. It has always fascinated me as to why, when women carry out cooking in the domestic setting, it is men who consistently feature as the top chefs in my industry. The rise of the chef has resulted in a complicated and misunderstood relationship for women and their relationship with the skill of cooking.  The rise of the chef, married with the separation of the two spheres – the public and private – seems to me a good place to begin the story for women chefs and the many challenges they may face through their careers.  Many challenges remain for women in this industry but by looking back at how it all began it helps me frame my research and develop it through the lens of feminist discourse.



[1] Trubek, A. (2000), Haute Cuisine: How the French Created the Culinary Profession, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[3] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[4] Swinbank, V. A. (2002). The Sexual Politics of Cooking: A Feminist Analysis of Culinary Hierarchy in Western Culture, The Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol 15, pp.464–494.

[5] Harris Deborah A. & Patti Giuffre, Patti A, (2015), Taking the Heat , Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen , Rutgers University Press

[6] Abarca, Meredith E. (2008), Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. U.S.A: Library of Congress.

“From London to Afghanistan in a beat up minivan”: How travel guidebooks manage to gain our trust

By: Julia Hieske 

Whenever someone plans a trip nowadays there is a good chance they get a guidebook first. The Lonely Planet’s travel books, to name one of the genre’s most famous publishers, have guided generations of tourists across the world from destinations as well-travelled as Rome and Paris, to plenty of fairly remote places like Cape York in the North of Australia.


Guidebooks fulfill a number of functions: they prepare the soon-to-be travellers for their trip, giving valuable advice on when to go (for Cape York it is June to October as you will want to avoid the Wet), what to pack and how to dress. They help travellers to plan their trip and make decisions about the inclusion or exclusion of places from their itinerary. Other than that, they also function as culture brokers. Just like a personal guide on the spot, the editors of guidebooks have to know their audience’s culture as well as the culture of the destination. They have to “speak both fluently,” so to say, in order to translate and interpret the signs of a place to its visitors; think hand gestures, conventions of dress, haggling, the (in)famous siesta, to only name but a few.

So, without guidebooks – and their modern little siblings, travel blogs on the internet – we would basically all be lost, literally, in translation.

gWe would stumble about blindly in a foreign place not knowing we have just missed out on our probably only chance to see Mallorca’s best hidden beach or get a taste of Napoli’s best Pizza Margarita, by turning right instead of left. Without a guidebook in our pocket, we might not even realise we are guilty of a foolish faux pas in France or be peeved to find out we are the first, by far, to show up at a birthday bash in Mexico City. But in order to be guided by them, first, we have to trust them.

Clichés are never far away

It is a tricky business, this culture broking. As guides and guidebook writers look for ways to make a foreign culture intelligible to visitors, cultural stereotypes and clichés are never far away. Some of them are so sticky, they are repeated over and over again, all the while shaping the fantasies people have about a certain country or region and its people. After a while, though, these stereotypes are hardly questioned anymore but taken for facts or common knowledge. In Orientalism, Edward Said reminds us that the attempt of describing a culture in often heavily simplified terms from an outsider’s perspective is always a matter of power.[1] And so is travelling. That is why, just like in journalism, description and reporting in travel guides can never be entirely objective. It is interesting, then, that the prefaces or “about us” sections of guidebooks, from the very first examples to the present day, insist on telling things as they are. Yet, take one destination, see how it is described in a variety of guidebooks published in different countries and languages, and you will end up with stereotypes as different as chalk and cheese.[2]

“At Lonely Planet we tell it like it is”

Now, on the textual level, guidebooks count with a very specific narrative situation, which is most visible in the pioneering nineteenth-century ones published by John Murray or Karl Baedeker.


On the one hand, guidebook writers are keen to exude authority. The handbooks should appear to the readers as a mimetic description of the real world and so their authors vow to stick to the truth. Murray et al. saw themselves as mere “transcribers of facts,” who reported on every detail there was. So, contrary to personal travel accounts, their tone was supposed to sound scientific and objective.


Today we would say that there is no such thing as an objective representation. Yet, take a phrase like this one: “At Lonely Planet we tell it like it is.”

It is taken from their website only a couple of days ago.[3] As we can see, the nineteenth-century claim of objectivity is still around. Curiously, despite their all-encompassing pseudo-scientific style, guidebook writers needed – and still need – to achieve credibility. Whereas a guide hired on the spot could create trust using personal skills like empathy, individual explanations or nonverbal communication, guidebooks can do none of those things. Instead, they have to count on other strategies in order to make up for this deficiency.

Been there, done that

Prefaces – or “about the editors” sections on publishers’ websites – play an important role in the development of a reader-publisher relationship that is the basis for the creation of credibility and trust.[4]


There, the writers support their truth claim using a number of recurring techniques. For now, I call the first the been-there-done-that factor. The writers or publishers are presented as travellers, thus, creating a bond of shared experience between themselves and the readers. While the personal touch is deliberately missing from the main text, the paratextual means, that is the preface or self-describing information on a website, compensate for it by making the writers relatable human beings and the product of their journey an authentic one.

In the same vein, almost all guidebooks flaunt some sort of founding myth.

It has become a default move to describe the origin of the books in almost heroic terms, telling the story of a traveller who, facing the odds of his journey, was struck by the genius and benevolent idea of creating a guidebook. Compare, for example, the story of how Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler, and I quote from the website, “drove from London to Afghanistan in a beat up minivan.”[5] This way, an emotional bond with a fellow traveller is fostered. In case that was not enough, though, publishers use yet another strategy that is supposed to convince the reader of the authenticity of the information at hand.

A necessary evil

Back then, as well as today, guidebooks had to be true to the latest developments. Say, if a hotel suddenly changed its owner and its standard went from first-class to mediocre, a responsible publisher would not want his readers to get disappointed and, then, blame the guidebook. So, naturally, the been-there-done-that factor is complemented by some sort of up-to-date factor.

Because in order to “tell things as they are” one not only has to have been there but to return frequently so as to check whether “things” still are as they were a year ago.

Regular revisions are a necessary evil if publishers want to keep their audience’s trust. The preface, then, is also the place where readers are assured the book in their hands is as up-to-date as possible. Publishers know, however, that complete accuracy of information is impossible to achieve. Therefore, deliberately stating their duty to revisions, they kill two birds with one – rhetorical – stone. Firstly, they admit to possible shortcomings, thus, anticipating criticism and mitigating the readers’ reaction to it. And secondly, they invite readers to participate by sending in comments and corrections, thereby strengthening the author-reader relationship of – supposedly – mutual trust. Whether these suggestions have ever been taken into account remains unclear but the publishers’ apparent openness to criticism certainly serves to enhance their credibility.

Not for Tourists

Last but not least, guidebooks frequently mention an issue that has been a staple of the tourism industry for a long time and which, for the sake of continuity, I will call the us-versus-them factor. To see what I mean, have a look at this photo I have taken myself on a vacation on the island of Mallorca. It shows a bus displaying the logo of a tourist agency that takes large groups of tourists to touristic spots in order to carry out touristic activities.3 Yet, their advertising slogan begs to differ. Or take the case of a series of guidebooks which is aptly called Not for Tourists.[6] The whole concept of alternative tourism, or backpacking, and its bible, the Lonely Planet, is based on the idea of its distinction from regular, or mass tourism. But the philosophy of travelling off the beaten track was not only born in the seventies with Tony and Maureen Wheeler. In fact, it was the us-versus-them factor that was responsible for the coming into being of commercial guidebooks altogether. In the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Cook’s commercial tours had gained momentum and given more people access to travelling than ever before. Cook sold pre-planned and guided group trips that would take tourists to popular destinations all over the globe. The concept was such a success that Cook’s tours were soon associated with mass tourism that left little space for individuality. Guidebooks offered their readers a radically different travel experience. One to which only they could give them access. Equipped with a handbook, travellers were now able to explore places by themselves and independently from large groups and personal guides. Publishers like to highlight this distinguishing feature because, then and now, they hope to find a niche in the market by setting themselves apart.

Implicitly, though, the authors and publishers of guidebooks bought into a distinction whose development might as well be traced back to the relatively new phenomenon of mass tourism and the reactions to it: the traveller versus tourist binary, which is still present in popular discourse. If it was not, there would not be so many publications in print and online dedicated to real travel as opposed to practicing tourism. Yet, as James Buzard so accurately observes, it is hardly possible to escape tourism altogether.[7] Or how would you explain that all too often alternative routes or ways of travel soon become well-trodden paths and common practice?

Paradoxically, thus, those who do not want to be ‘tourists’, contribute to the formation of new areas developed for tourism, a phenomenon Buzard calls “anti-tourism.”

It is “anti-tourism,” then, that describes best the Lonely Planet’s ideology and their advice, for example, to visit the aforementioned Cape York, which, supposedly, is still unspoilt by tourists and one of the most remote places in Australia.

“Guide-books and their ubiquitous possessors”

Back in the nineteenth century, in a wonderfully ironic turn, Murray’s and Baedeker’s handbooks had become such a global success, that they, too, were seen as a symbol of mass tourism. This “anti-tourist” and travel writer, for example, was anything but enthused by the users of such guidebooks:


“When the journeying cyclist or motorist quits the tourist-infected route on which Singapore is the East Indian rest-house, and sails across the equator towards the rarely visited island of the Dutch Archipelago, new pleasures unadulterated by crimson-colored guide-books and their ubiquitous possessors await him at every turn.”

The quote is taken from an article about Java and was published in 1903.[8] It was written by a U.S. American who, only five years later, went on to write and publish a “crimson-colored guidebook” – not to Southeast Asia, that came later, but – to Mexico. His name was T. P. Terry, he was a traveller, a businessman, as well as a writer, and he is the subject of my current research. Fascinating stuff, but I will leave that for another time.

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism [1978] (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003).

[2] Jennifer Bender, Bob Gidlow, David Fisher, “National Stereotypes in Tourist Guidebooks: an Analysis of Auto- and Heterostereotypes in Different Language Guidebooks about Switzerland,” Annals of Tourism Research 40 (2013).

[3], accessed 21/11/2016.

[4] Ana Alarcova, “Legitimacy, Self-Interpretation and Genre in Media Industries: a Paratextual Analysis of Travel Guidebook Publishing,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 18, no. 6 (2015).

[5], accessed 21/11/2016.

[6], accessed 21/11/2016.

[7] James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

[8] T. Philip Terry, “The Good Touring Roads of Java”, Outing 43 (1903), p. 45.

Women, Shakespeare, and Ireland: what ish my nation?

by Emer McHugh

Let’s begin with Henry V. It’s the scene where Captains Gower and Fluellen meet with their Irish and Scottish counterparts, Macmorris and Jamy, to discuss the siege of Harfleur. Macmorris and Fluellen have a particularly agitated conversation:

Fluellen. Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation.

Macmorris. Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal? What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation? (3.3.61-65)

Even though he is a relatively minor character, Macmorris’ response there – ‘what ish my nation?’ – has been taken up as the starting-point for approaching issues of national identity in Irish literature and drama, and also as the linchpin for Shakespeare and Ireland studies as well. Of course, Macmorris’ predominance in such criticism does not come without its problems: Stephen O’Neill has drawn attention to how

‘[s]uch privileging [of Macmorris] has as much to do with Shakespeare’s centrality to the canon – stage Irish characters in other plays from the period have not been analysed to the same extent – as it does with the centrality of MacMorris’s questions to a play about conquest, cultural difference and national identity.’[1]

O’Neill is right to advise caution here, but I think that ‘what ish my nation?’ still carries meaning in Shakespeare and Ireland studies, and in 21st century Ireland too. I don’t have far to look: I look at my country’s treatment of its women.


Druid Theatre Company’s ‘DruidShakespeare’

Women and Ireland 

This year alone, I think of the unveiling and removal of the Maser Art mural at the Project Arts Centre. The establishment of the Repeal Project clothing company. #TwoWomenTravel, unflinching in its depiction of what Irish pregnant people are put through should they want to make choices for their own bodies. Brianna Parkins talking about wanting to see the Eighth Amendment repealed on the Rose of Tralee, an unlikely (but nevertheless, welcome) topic to be discussed on everyone’s favourite Lovely Girl competition. ‘We Face This Land’, a two-minute visualisation of Sarah Maria Griffin’s poem that dared to assert ‘The laws of the church have no place on your flesh […] Witches or women – these are our bodies which shall not be given up’.[2] However, Enda Kenny’s words still ring in my ears: ‘The T-shirts may be black and white writing on them but this is about people and people have different views.’ ‘This is about people’: but am I not a person? Are the twelve people who travel to the UK every single day not people as well? If my country does not recognise me as a person, then what ish my nation? (It’s also worth pointing out that his year also marks twenty years since the closure of the last Magdalene laundry in Ireland. I could go on about this country’s treatment of its women over decades.)

This is also a nation where its own national theatre omits – bar one playwright – women from its 1916 commemorative programme: leading to the birth of the #WakingTheFeminists movement, which, over the last year, has tirelessly worked to create change, equality, and equity in Irish theatre. Its work is far from over, but it is incredible to see how it has invigorated the theatrical landscape both in terms of scholarship and practice. (It’s certainly been a huge influence on my own research, as well as leading to the creation of Feminist Theatre Squadron, a podcast which I co-host with my colleagues.) When the movement was in its beginning stages, out of interest I decided to read up on the Abbey Theatre’s stats in performing Shakespeare. How many women have directed Shakespeare for the national theatre? I wanted to find out. And it turned out that, in the theatre’s 110+ years’ history, there had been only one woman who had done so. And she happens to be the incumbent artistic director of the Gate Theatre. (It was Selina Cartmell, by the way: King Lear in 2013.) I understand that Shakespeare may not be an immediate choice for Irish theatre practitioners: yet, as Mark Thornton Burnett cautions, ‘[a]lthough Shakespeare’s work can be seen as an imperial export, it also belongs to a broader dialogue – a system of negotiations, manipulations and imaginative reinscriptions.’[3] Shakespeare performance in an Irish context, then, can be a fascinating site for exploring issues of national identity. I also believe that it can be a fascinating site for exploring gender – for writing women back into the narrative.

Women & Shakespeare

As an intersectional feminist, I find myself grappling with the fact that I work on the most famous dead white man in all of Western literature. Shakespeare’s plays are not inherently feminist. But, the performance of his plays can be feminist. As Kim Solga writes, ‘feminist resistance to the gaze is both visual and structural; it’s a matter of both what is presented on stage, lifted up to audience view, and how that material is presented, the narrative that shapes its presentation.’[4] I also emphasise Sarah Werner’s idea that ‘all performances of Shakespeare engage in localized production of meaning’[5]: which has implications not only for the creative team’s approach to the play, but also audience members’ reception of the production: what I took away from it may not be the same as someone else in the audience that night. Margaret Jane Kidnie suggests that ‘a play, for all that it carries the rhetorical and ideological force of enduring stability, is not an object at all, but rather a dynamic process that evolves over time in response to the needs and sensibilities of its users.’[6] In line with Kidnie’s argument, I’d contend that any given Shakespeare production is one out of many products of an evolving process, that being the chosen play as it has been shaped by shifting cultural attitudes over time. So, in light of that, what I want to offer in this short piece are some examples of Irish Shakespeare performance that explore gender and feminism in interesting ways.

Druid Theatre Company’s DruidShakespeare premiered in May 2015. This was a seven-hour adaptation of the first Henriad into one continuous narrative, and in the three principle roles of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, the Henrys were played by women. Particularly in the case of Aisling O’Sullivan’s performance as Henry V, DruidShakespeare used the performance of gender to subvert conventional ideas and patterns in Shakespeare performance – quite pertinent given the cultural signifiers that Henry V as a character and as an icon of English patriotism produces. O’Sullivan spoke with a guttural County Kerry accent, not only recalling her previous roles for Druid but also throwing into sharp contrast the ghosts of previous Henrys, the majority of these male and having performed at British theatrical institutions that Worthen would describe as ‘institutionalized Shakespeare’: examples such as Hassell at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kenneth Branagh at the same theatre and on film, Jude Law for the Michael Grandage Company, Adrian Lester for the National Theatre, and Jamie Parker for Shakespeare’s Globe.[7]

Many of the theatres housing these performances are associated with institutionalised ideas of verse-speaking: indeed, some of them ‘have been extremely influential in the establishment of principles of Shakespearean verse speaking on the modern British stage.’[8] Not only that, O’Sullivan’s physical presence cut a distinctive presence. Considering the likes of Hassell, Branagh, Parker, Law, and Lester – all of whom played athletic, muscular, conventionally masculine Henrys – upon her first entrance, O’Sullivan’s Hal was lithe, wiry, and prone to posturing and slouching. Her chief uniform, too, was a large black leather jacket and jeans: contrasting with the royal livery with which we commonly associate Henry: not only a crown and a suit of armour, but the colours of red and blue, the three lions, and the fleur-de-lis (Hassell, Branagh, Law, and Parker all sported variations on this, harking back to Laurence Olivier’s take on the role). O’Sullivan is not the only female Henry in the current theatrical landscape: Lazarus Theatre Company produced an all-female version last year, and Michelle Terry played the role this year for Open Air Theatre.[9] Genderblind Shakespeare may not be innovative, but it is clear that O’Sullivan’s performance in itself is a response to conventions, traditions, and iconographies in Irish and Shakespeare performance practice – conventions that are predominantly quite male.

A feminist approach to Shakespeare

If we return to 2016, the most unexpected place to find an alternative response to this 1916 centenary year – a response which was certainly inspired by #WakingTheFeminists’ efforts – was in a reconstructed Elizabethan theatre on the Bankside in London. Caroline Byrne’s production of The Taming of the Shrew was announced as part of Emma Rice’s first season as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe earlier this year. In a press release announcing its final casting, the production was billed as marking ‘the centenary of the Easter Rising by revisiting 1916 Ireland and remembering the role of women in the fight for independence.’[10]

To be sure (perhaps because of where it was performed), this Shrew deals in commoditised Irishness – on the night I saw the production, the musicians played their jigs and reels on the bodhrán, tin whistle, fiddle, and guitar for the crowd’s pleasure. The production’s Irish Catholic context was brought to the fore: during her wedding, Katherina (Aoife Duffin) sat on top of two staircases that folded together to display a neon-light cross, whereas Petruchio’s (Edward Mac Liam) admission to Gremio (Raymond Keane) that ‘me father dead’ was met with numerous members of the cast blessing themselves with the sign of the cross. The text, too, was edited to add elements of Hiberno-English and Irish, such as ‘Jaysus’, ‘mo chara’, and ‘go raibh mile maith agaibh’.

But more pertinent in relation to the production’s feminist approach was the inclusion of additional songs, with lyrics written by the production’s dramaturg Morna Regan. A most notable example is the song ‘Numbered in the Song’ which, in Byrne’s words, ‘[remembers] all the women unsung by Irish history’, and was ‘in part inspired’ by Yeats’ poem Easter 1916, ‘where only the men are “numbered in the song”.’[11] This song, sung by Aoife Duffin as Katherina in a thick Dublin brogue, acted as an ongoing theme throughout the production: as Byrne simply states in an interview, ‘[i]t is a motif in the production, to be numbered in the song.’[12] The production also dispensed with Christopher Sly and the Induction in favour of Duffin performing the song after the musicians had left at the beginning, and Katherina’s singing closed the first half and also concluded the show. Again, this is part of this Shrew placing women – more specifically Katherina and her story – at its heart, and it is interesting that it did so through an appropriation of a male Irish writer’s words. With lyrics such as ‘The nation promised equality’, the song also threw into sharp relief the ongoing struggle for women’s rights in Ireland over the last hundred years.

From the get-go, the production was sympathetic to Katherina’s plight, and suggested that her taming by Petruchio was unnecessary and cruel. From Katherina’s spoken-word songs, to her newspaper being ripped out of her hand by her own father, to the production refusing to shy away from the psychological and emotional abuse Petruchio subjected her to (she spent the second half in her torn wedding dress, sleeping on a bed with only Petruchio’s cowskin cape as a duvet) – this Shrew emphasised the implications of a patriarchal Irish Catholic society on the lives of women. In doing so, it did not provide easy answers: Katherina delivered her final speech in resignation, anger, and frustration at the world she was forced to inhabit, and her relationship with a troubled-looking Petruchio was left up in the air.

Additionally, it emphasises these women’s voices: instead of Petruchio, Katherina was given the production’s final words through song, telling Petruchio that ‘I will not go to war with thee | Dulce et decorum est’ – the melody following the traditional tune ‘The Parting Glass’.[13] In addition, Amy Conroy’s Widow had an expanded role to play in this production: hovering in the background, quietly horrified at the misogyny unfolding on stage, providing quiet counsel to Katherina throughout. This relationship between the Widow and Katherina was built to the point where the final scene appears to be a battle between the former and Petruchio for the latter’s soul. (A Pyrrhic victory for Petruchio is implied here.) As Byrne comments, ‘[i]t’s not a play about the Easter Rising, but it attempts to chime with the experience of Irish women. The promises made in the [1916] Proclamation were not kept in the decades that followed and Irish women are still seeking equality to this day – much in the same way that Katherina is in Shrew’.[14] However, I am not sure if all of this was in the mind of Globe audiences throughout the production’s run. This is judging by the ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ chant Petruchio encouraged the crowd to partake in very early on in the evening, as well as the cheering and whooping that greeted a later kiss between the two. Both times, Duffin’s Katherina was uncomfortable and unwilling to participate. This is perhaps illustrative of Werner’s idea of ‘a performance of Shakespeare that reflects the individual viewer’s perceptions and desires as much as it does those of Shakespeare or the director’[15]: indeed, performance reception is always a composite of individual and collective responses.

Writing last year for the Irish Times and reflecting on the very first #WakingTheFeminists public meeting, Lian Bell commented that ‘[d]uring the past weeks, through the voices of a multitude of women and men speaking up as feminists, this word came to life for me. I realise how important exposure to a spectrum of stories is – next year more than ever.’[16] Bell’s idea of ‘exposure to a spectrum of stories’ is crucial here: not only in our commemoration of 1916, but also in the year of commemorating Shakespeare’s death and the constant reinforcing of his dominance in world culture. (I’d also argue that it’s crucial in the context of recent world events, as well.) Feminist Shakespeare performance should not be the only intervention to make, but at least it should be one of many: specifically in the case of Irish women as we attempt to rewrite what ish our nation indeed.

[1] Stephen O’Neill, ‘Beyond MacMorris: Shakespeare, Ireland and Critical Contexts’, in Celtic Shakespeare: The Bard and the Borderers, ed. by Willy Maley and Rory Loughnane (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), pp.245-57 (p.247).

[2] ‘We Face This Land’,, [accessed 27 November 2016].

[3] Mark Thornton Burnett, ‘Introduction’, in Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture, ed. by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), pp.1-5 (p.4).

[4] Kim Solga, Theatre & Feminism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p.30.

[5] Sarah Werner, Shakespeare and Feminist Performance: Ideology on Stage (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p.19.

[6] Margaret Jane Kidnie, Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p.1.

[7] Worthen, p.41.

[8] Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Shakespearean Verse-Speaking: Text and Theatre Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), p.1.

[9] See <> and <> for more information on these two productions.

[10] ‘Globe Theatre Press Release – Shakespeare’s Globe announces full cast for Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew’,, [accessed 18 October 2016].

[11] Caroline Byrne and Danielle Pearson, ‘Confronting the Shrew’, programme for The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2016), p.9.

[12] Byrne and Pearson, p.9.

[13] ‘Adopt An Actor: Katherine Played By Aoife Duffin: Performances 2’,, [accessed 18 October 2016].

[14] Byrne and Pearson, p.8.

[15] Werner, p.102.

[16] Lian Bell, ‘Lian Bell: #WakingTheFeminists still waiting for the Abbey’, Irish Times, 16 December 2015, [accessed 3 October 2016].