"I Was Fed Up" — The 180-Degree Decision to Stage Shakespeare With Only Women

News   "I Was Fed Up" — The 180-Degree Decision to Stage Shakespeare With Only Women Phyllida Lloyd, director of the all-female Henry IV playing St. Ann's Warehouse, reveals the moment she decided to disrupt the status quo by casting a Shakespeare play completely with women and how female prisoners can relate to Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton.

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Phyllida Lloyd
Phyllida Lloyd Photo by 2008 - Universal Pictures

If New York theatregoers can't snag a ticket to see the Donmar Warehouse production of Henry IV at St. Ann's Warehouse, they needn't despair: The cast members will most likely be easy to spot while riding the subway.

While directing the all-female cast in Shakespeare's history play, Phyllida Lloyd spoke with the actors at great length about embodying roles typically performed by male actors — and adopting habits typically common to men, including sitting with their legs apart on the subway, occupying more than one seat.

"Our cast has become so alert to [manspreading]," she said. "We've been practicing it on our subways — just sitting there and having their legs apart and seeing horror on everyone's face and testing how invasive it feels."

Henry IV, which follows the strained relationship between King Henry IV and his son as well as the rebellion stirring among noblemen, marks the second Shakespeare play that Lloyd has directed with a cast comprising women. The first, Julius Caesar, was presented in London and then brought to Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse in 2013. Both Julius Caesar and Henry IV have been set in prisons, with Harriet Walter leading the casts.

Lloyd selected the play after speaking with prisoners in England and sharing the story of Henry IV with them. The women reacted strongly to the story of a boy, who is caught between two kinds of parents and questions his ability to rehabilitate and reform into what society requires him to be.

Harriet Walter and the cast of <i>Julius Caesar</i>
Harriet Walter and the cast of Julius Caesar

"This spoke very strongly to the group of women we were working with who struggled so hard to put their pasts behind them. It's a play very much of people being haunted by their pasts — by shame and the way in which shame converts to rage and violence. It's also a play about a fight for land or space, which is something that prisoners understand very vividly."

Presenting works that women understand and respond to is of interest to Lloyd, who commented on the impact of the all-female cast, saying, "It frees all the actresses from the domestic and the romantic realm, apart from two of the characters — two of the female characters — and they both give us very good opportunities to exploit what it feels like to be a woman in the world of men." The production also frees the women from physical constraints, as it features the cast in prison uniforms and presents them in a way that is not sexual. "There's something immediately androgynous about them," Lloyd said, "and all those concerns completely fall away."

The cast has savored the opportunity to seize upon this new kind of power, Lloyd said. "It's not that they're mimicking men. It's just that they take up space in a way that they have not hitherto felt. Even when Harriet talked about playing Cleopatra, she was in the rehearsal room 'under sufferance' as a woman. It's not that anyone's not letting us feel entitled, but somehow we don't allow ourselves to feel entitled in the way that we should."

Lloyd was inspired to direct an all-female production in reaction to the fact that for every job available to a woman in the theatre, there were two available for men. While the statistics were applicable across the industry, she focused on the actors, saying, "I was fed up with the young people — teenagers — being subjected again and again to nights in the theatre where they just saw two or three women in a cast of 18 men…. And I felt I wanted to give some of my actress friends of my generation [who] really have exhausted the canon in terms of the female roles. Now what do they do?"

Harriet Walter in <i>Henry IV</i>
Harriet Walter in Henry IV Photo by Helen Maybanks

While audience reactions to the production have been positive — many have said they barely noticed the gender of the cast — Lloyd shared that some actors have expressed jealousy of the casting, saying, "We've been conscious of how the taking of these roles literally is a provocation and some people found that their partners and boyfriends — if they were actors — their noses were put a little bit out of joint when they heard they were playing these great iconic roles. We've been amused by that."

The production crosses the pond to America in the heat of the presidential election season, during which Hillary Clinton is widely considered a front-runner for the Democratic party. The timing is not lost upon Lloyd, who recalled Margaret Thatcher's election to Prime Minister in London. "Shakespeare's writing clearly about Elizabeth I and the stakes being very high for a female ruler. They were high then, and they're even higher now. Clearly, in the States, you're on that cusp of possibility that we were on at the time Margaret Thatcher came to power. Even for us that completely disagreed with her politics, there was an element of punching the air when a woman gets through the door. I'm sure you'll feel the same if Hillary Clinton gets into the White House, whatever your political stripes, if you're a woman."

Henry IV bows Off-Broadway two years after the Shakespeare's Globe all-male productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, starring Tony Award winner Mark Rylance, played to acclaim on Broadway, winning several Tony Awards. Noting the differences in how an all-male and all-female production have been received, Lloyd said, "I think that it's partly an experiment in giving the so-called crown jewels of our culture to a group of people who you might think of as refugees of our culture. You might think of them as the lowest of the low, the most hidden voices you can think of, which would be women in jail. Now look what happens when you give them this mighty text…see what the extraordinary combustion is between these apparently fragile, voiceless creatures and this language.

Clare Dunne and Jade Anouka in <i>Henry IV</i>
Clare Dunne and Jade Anouka in Henry IV Photo by Helen Maybanks

"It's questioning who owns our culture. Who has rights to it? Should it not be being shared more widely? Throwing light on where people are voiceless and unheard."

And providing women with the opportunity to speak out leads to a rare opportunity to lead and be center stage, Lloyd said. "I think it is in some way a metaphor for that. The girls have got their hand on the keys to the building. The lunatics have taken over the asylum."

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)

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