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.

DruidShakespeare

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 Brianna Parkins talking about wanting to see the Eighth Amendment repealed on the Rose of Tralee, an unlikely (but nevertheless, welcome) topic to be discussed on everyone’s favourite Lovely Girl competition.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’, YouTube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=571vnkdrWC0 [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 <https://openairtheatre.com/production/henry-v> and <http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Theater/production/stage/3410/> 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’, shakespearesglobe.com, http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/uploads/files/2016/04/12.04.16_shrew_casting_release_final.pdf [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’, shakespearesglobe.com, http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/discovery-space/adopt-an-actor/archive/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, http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/lian-bell-wakingthefeminists-still-waiting-for-the-abbey-1.2467408 [accessed 3 October 2016].

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