SOPHIA CHETIN-LEUNER discusses women on the London Stage in 2014
Ask any regular theatregoer what their theatrical highlights have been so far this year and no doubt Mojo and Henry V will be among the most recurrent answers. And who can disagree? Jude Law was a balletic yet sexy King Henry, just as Ben Whishaw was mesmerising as the erratic yet languid psychopath, Baby. But with these male actors dominating the already fleeting press coverage for West End shows, their female counterparts are left uttering Cleopatra’s woeful line ‘I am all forgotten’.
Yes, Jude Law did a good job. He sculpted a detailed role which showed the multitude of contradictions that make us humans who we are: witty yet ruthless, agile yet mature, cocky yet doubtful. However, one of the most troubling aspects of the role, one which actors since Shakespeare’s time have had difficulty reconciling, is how to perform the play’s final scene – the union of Henry and the French princess, Kate. This scene is tempting to play as the finale of a rom-com, with the blustering Englishman attempting to woo the timid French girl with a multitude of lost-in-translation humour before the final ‘the big kiss’. And that’s how most directors do it, including the great Michael Grandage, who no doubt saw the scene’s comic potential and its entertainment value for modern audiences who enjoy their happy endings.
But this isn’t what Shakespeare gives us. Henry V is not a comedy. The marriage between Kate and Henry has, from the start of the play, been for a political purpose. These cracks began to show when Law exclaimed, with his charming head tilt and the soft lilt of his mellifluous voice: ‘I love France so well that / I will not part with a village of it; I will have it /all mine: and, Kate, when France is mine … you are mine.’ What a line. ‘Lets get married so I can command you as well as your country’. Shockingly, Kate doesn’t seem convinced. She only agrees to marry him because it will ‘please mon pere’, and even then she tells him to ‘laissez’ because she doesn’t want to kiss him.
Despite this textual evidence, Law completely abandoned his brutal war-hero character and opted instead for the classic rom-com Englishman he is known for. No critic commented on this inconsistency. But what is worse, no critic noted how Jessie Buckley remained true to the text: unwilling to kiss her groom-to-be, she delivered her lines with the subtle sense of victimhood the role demands. Appallingly, The Independent didn’t even mention her, The Guardian dismissed her inaccurately as ‘quietly bemused’ and The Telegraph derogatorily called her performance ‘delicious’. Law played a difficult role well, but not perfectly. Jessie Buckley held her own against the superstar, giving a nuanced performance that revealed a complex version of a character that is easily performed as a simply ‘delicious’ girl.
Mojo is just as deserving in its praise. The six men in the cast form a talented ensemble, darting across the stage with a frantic energy that is at odds with the precision with which they delivered lines. But London, while showering Mojo with an extended run and constant press coverage, seems to have ignored the empowering Blurred Lines, which demonstrates eight female actors’ talents in the same mesmerising fashion. For the small price of £12, you can see Blurred Lines at the National Theatre. Inspired by the banal sexism of Robin Thicke’s song, the play tactfully deals with issues surrounding rape and female victimisation in the workplace, proving feminism need not be an f-word. The play’s power lies in its performers though, with each of the eight women performing a multitude of roles that were as moving and as believable as the next.
When reviewers and the public discuss Mojo, we name Colin Morgan or Ben Wishshaw or Daniel Mays. But the language with which critics discussed Blurred Lines reduces the cast to one female unit. Michael Billington, renowned theatre critic of The Guardian, would rather comment in detail about the male role Marion Bailey plays rather than naming her. There is an absence of language concerning the female actors. Thus the bitter irony is that while critics are praising the play’s progressive themes, they are refusing to acknowledge the feminist ethos themselves. Next to nothing was mentioned of Sinead Matthews’ versatility, or the hallucinatory qualities of Susannah Wises’ voice, or how painfully realistic Claire Skinner’s depiction of a modern mother was. All critics seem to highlight is that fact that it was co-written by a man.
Although the play may be receiving 4 stars, just like Henry V and Mojo, it is not getting the same media exposure. The reviews for Blurred Lines are less than half the length of their male dominated competitors. Despite being a huge fan of Shakespeare myself, I am the first to admit that the issues raised in Blurred Lines are more worthy of discussion by a modern day audience.
It is true that Gemma Arteton’s performance as the title role in The Duchess of Malfi received a large amount of coverage, but her overly sexualised and slightly immature performance, with her tits pushed up to her chin, didn’t merit the same praise as Eileen Atkins, who is performing her one woman show in the same space, the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. Atkins’ command of the stage coupled with the finesse in which she flits between Shakespearean monologues has resulted in a standing ovation every single night. But I bet few people reading this even knew this was being performed.
I’m not arguing that women are better actors than men. I’m saying that women make up 68% of the average theatre audience and yet only 38% of actors employed during 2011-12 were female. The media and the public, whether female or male, are not giving female actors the credit and attention they deserve on or off stage. So, if you go see Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus, or Simon Russell Beale in King Lear, make sure you take more than a minute to note how Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia carries the energy of the play and Anna Maxwell Martin’s Regan has won more awards than Beale did when he was her age.