Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

Henry V, All-Male Casts, and Gender Colonialism

- Caroline Criado-Perez

Well, I’ll be honest – I don’t think it was a vintage Propeller performance. But this had nothing to do with gender [see below] and all to do with a few surprising lapses into mannered intonation from the two kings. With Shakespeare, my feeling is that you either play it to accentuate the poetry, or you play it realistically. You can even play it stylised if such is your wont, but please, can we start a campaign to end ‘that Shakespeherian‘ line delivery which neither matches the sense of the lines, nor the sense of the poetry, but merely serves to remind the audience that we are watching ‘serious’ Shakespeare. And not in a good way.

Shakespeare was possibly the greatest piss-taker since Chaucer, and Propeller normally gets this, which is why I sort of want to give them the benefit of the doubt and wonder if this was a deliberate ploy to accentuate the meta-theatrical nature of this play. A play which, after all, begins with an uncompromising detailing of the limitations of its own representation on-stage, and features repeated reminders of these limitations at scene changes. But I’m not sure that I can.

Firstly, the offending intonation was too sporadic to be considered part of a directorial strategy to emphasise Henry V’s meta-theatricality. Or if it was, it was a poorly executed part of what, in general, was a pretty successful strategy. So marks lost for that.

Additionally, this type of intonation represents the most lazy kind of RSC Shakespeare performance, so even if it were an attempt to accentuate the world’s a stage-ness of it all, it was a poor choice of stratagem. Through his inescapable emphasis on the play being the thing, Shakespeare doesn’t intend to suggest that any of what is presented is any less real. And for evidence of that we only have to consider one of his most popular characters, Falstaff, who, in Henry IV part i gives a very learned discourse on the matter:

‘Sblood,’twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too. Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die, is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man: but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life.

Ha! One of my favourite quotations from Shakespeare, second only to another classic from the same play:

Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the signs of leaping-houses and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.

Absolute genius.

What the Falstaff quotation demonstrates was that, for Shakespeare, counterfeiting was not less real than reality. In many ways it was more real, and here he was way ahead of his time, preempting thoughts like this one from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

As usual, Shakespeare has been there, done that, and done it much better – sorry Vonnegut fans. And it’s not just in the Falstaff quotation, the As You Like It quotations, the Hamlet quotation. The whole of Macbeth is arguably a play about the co-implication of the stage and ‘real’ life, and a questioning of which is the most real. This was a question that fascinated Shakespeare throughout his career, and to reduce it to the level of mannered intonation is to do the complexity of the issue a disservice.

But maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe it was just below-par acting.

As for the issue raised by Dominic Cavendish about there being little justification for keeping the all-male cast for Henry V, I couldn’t disagree more. On the contrary, I think it’s one of the most suitable plays that Shakespeare wrote for gender-crossing, and Propeller made the case for it with their usual panache.

Henry V is a play about colonisation, about breaches, about land-grabs – and it’s a play that repeatedly reminds us that land is gendered female. I’d forgotten quite how much of the language concerns violence to women – and how much this language mirrors the language of land-conquest.

This was brought out in a manner that was at once deeply disturbing and deeply effective. Through the use of male actors the females were not just sidelined to the extent already determined by the scarcity of female roles and lines in the play. They were effectually erased from the face of the stage/world. The male actors were not pretending to be women, as is clear from the total rejection of realism in their portrayals. They were taking them over, colonising them, grabbing their lines and their bodies, just as the English army takes over, colonises and grabs France. For me, the use of male actors served to emphasise the mirror-image that Shakespeare already works so hard to set up in the lines of the play itself.

This disturbing effect was heightened in numerous ways, not least by the fact that Propeller cut out a number of the few female lines Shakespeare wrote for this play – including all – or at least nearly all – of Mistress Quickly’s lines. She was reduced to a silent, simpering, nodding figure, who inspired a mixture of revulsion, contempt and sexual mocking from the rest of the cast. In the context of Katherine’s lines which focus on her body, and an attempt to speak in English, this emphasises the sense that women are being gradually rubbed out of existence – they are robbed of their bodies, they are robbed of their language, and they are robbed of their speech. The comic exit of the men from the scene with Mistress Quickly, where each of them had to bid her a personal ‘adieu’ is therefore marked by a darker underbelly of contempt for women, which ultimately manifests itself in the land-rape with which the rest of the play is concerned. And in this juxtaposition of the light and the dark, the scene mirrored another facet of the production which made the case for an all-male cast: the unison singing in the army scenes.

This type of shout-singing harks back to the Wonderwall wailing that used to be heard at football matches – and for all I know, still is. I’ve lost touch since I no longer have to put up with the TV preferences of two older brothers. But the style, comic and light-hearted for the most part, is a manifestation of male power, contrasting with the more delicate part-singing they perform. The unison emphasises the homogeneity of armies and the power they therefore wield. And considering the continual threats against the female, both land and human, executed by this particular army, this male unison constitutes a repeated threat, as well as more basically extending the sense that the force of the male is all-encompassing.

So Cavendish is right to sense a distinction between this performance and Propeller’s other productions. For all the laughs, it was far less charming and far more disturbing. But he is wrong to imagine that Henry V is not about gender confusion. On the contrary, this is a hugely important part of it. It just does not address it in a comic way. And Propeller did a great job of reminding its audience of the reasons for that.

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Coming Soon – Review of Propeller’s Henry V at Hampstead Theatre!

In the meantime, see here for Dominic Cavendish’s review, which is not so much a review, as a questioning of the relevance of cutting out female actors from Henry V / Winter’s Tale compared with ‘histories and comedies in which confusion or sexual ambiguity runs rife’.

Far be it from me to pre-judge, but being a long-time Propeller groupie, I suspect that it will still be brilliant. And I can think of lots of reasons why the all-male casting is still relevant, beyond the simple fact that Shakespeare wrote with that in mind – which actually, we should never dismiss as a reason. That’s not to say that mixed gender casts, or even all female casts are wrong. I would love to see an all-female production of Henry V actually. I think it would be fascinating – anyone? But to recreate what Shakespeare imagined will always be worthwhile; done well, it can reveal layers and complexities that women won’t bring – they will bring their own, equally exciting ones.

To focus first on Henry V, since I’m not going to The Winter’s Tale till next week, the very fact that it focuses on a war, which was such a male-dominated environment, might make the extension of ‘testosterone’ that Cavendish laments thoroughly appropriate: a projection of the way war can malevolently insinuate itself into every last part of life. Not only this, but the scenes with Katherine are intensely meta-theatrical and unreal – having a male actor playing a woman can only further that sense of confusion and of playing, rather than living, roles.

As for The Winter’s Tale, well, you could hardly have a play that focuses more intensely on gender roles. And why not use gender role confusion to explore that? I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Of course, this is all speculative. Maybe Propeller, for the first time, really has failed to make the case for having an all-male cast.

But I doubt it.

4 comments on “Henry V, All-Male Casts, and Gender Colonialism

  1. traslochi-casa
    May 16, 2013

    Grazie per il vostro articolo, mi sembra molto utile, prover senzaltro a sperimentare quanto avete indicato c’ solo una cosa di cui vorrei parlare pi approfonditamente, ho scritto una mail al vostro indirizzo al riguardo.

  2. BardLover2k12
    July 21, 2012

    Spot on. This pert piece proves once and for all that, at least in the realms of Bardic reviewery, the Lady shall say her minde freely; or the blanke Verse shall halt for’t.

  3. Kathron Bennett
    July 20, 2012

    I am so impressed by your – well, can’t say masterly….can I say mistressly? analysis – very sharp-paced and confident, not afraid to say what you found good and what not so good – and why – look forward to reading more -Kathron

  4. Alex
    July 20, 2012

    Haven’t seen this play but have been dying to as HV is a personal favorite. Very relieved to finally see a review that doesn’t simplistically assume an all-male cast means a sexist production.

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This entry was posted on July 20, 2012 by in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , .
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