Power and the London Theatre

Over these past few weeks, I have seen an awesome amount of live theatre – truly, more than I’ve seen in the past few years combined. I’ve been enrolled in an amazing class called Drama and the London Theatre (and a little disclaimer, this is going to be submitted for a graded assignment, so bear with me.) And if you know me, a post relating to gender studies shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. One of the most interesting threads I’ve seen running through a lot of the shows I’ve seen in London over the past few weeks is the dynamics between men and women, especially those surrounding power and hierarchy. We’ve seen a lot of performances based in different time periods – Shakespearean, Greek, turn of the century – and one of the things that has really fascinated me is the way that interaction of the genders and their power within the hierarchy of their time changes based on a variety of things from staging to costuming to the way the actor plays the role. You could argue that some plays are inherently sexist or inherently feminist, though I think a lot of where those ideas come from are decisions made artistically, from directors and actors and choreographers themselves.

Eve Best and Clive Wood in Antony and Cleopatra. Credit to Manuel Harlan, The Telegraph.

The show that really spurred this interest (besides a personal intrigue in the subject) was the one we saw with our orientation group, the final performance of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra run at the Globe (not that I was overly excited about it or anything ridiculous like that). Obviously, there’s already a really engaging gendered interaction written into this Shakespeare classic. While I’ve never been the biggest fan of Shakespearian tragedies, especially those with political undertones, this was an awesome start to a semester and a really wonderful rendition of a very difficult script. Eve Best’s Cleopatra was clearly the focal point, an emotional fortress who commanded the stage every time she set foot on it. While I wasn’t convinced with Clive Wood’s performance as Antony at first, the interactions between the two title characters was enthralling. The way they both played with the idea of who was truly the alpha and the omega in their relationship was creative and dynamic – Cleopatra clearly using her “feminine wiles” to play the game of politics, while Antony’s classically masculine role, defined by war and sword-fighting, softened around Cleopatra. This was an interesting contrast with the next performance I saw, since Antony and Cleopatra work together emotionally and on many other levels, the dynamics of the relationship in Medea are very different.

Helen McCrory and Danny Sapani in Medea. Credit to Tristram Kenton, The Guardian.

Director Carrie Cracknell’s vision of Medea was intoxicating. This was by far my favourite performance I’ve seen thus far, put on at the National Theatre here in London. The Greek classic was set in the 1960s, giving it a really interesting and surprising setting and set design. One of the things I love about classics is their ability to be timeless – you can still perform Greek and Shakespearian classics in the modern day and they make sense. A lot of people criticize the “older” theatre but these shows have the ability to ascend beyond generations, casting a spell over a wide audience. Helen McCrory’s performance as Medea was absolutely enchanting. She dominated. The entire performance was an emotional roller coaster, tender and loving in parts while shocking and terrifying in others. Our first image of the title character is of stumbling on stage, curls exploding out of place, brushing her teeth. Medea was a broken woman, and the audience was right there with her. But Medea also knew what she was doing – every decision she makes in the show she makes for a reason. If you know the story, you know that many of the decisions Medea makes are extremely questionable (such as killing her own children), but one of the wonderful things about this production was that we, as audience members, could see exactly what she was thinking at some points but at others, were just as far under her spell as Jason was.

Danny Sapani’s Jason was a force of strength and tenderness, regal in all the ways he needed to be. The dynamics between Medea and Jason were captivating – Medea’s emotional manipulation is cruel yet so powerful that you cannot help but respect the ways she can bend everyone to her will. Many of our class discussions circulated around who we thought we were supposed to “root” for – which really begs the question, who is the “good guy” in any show? Medea’s decision-making process may be questionable, but arguably, so is any other character’s. She does everything in a horrifically human way, which I think connects her to the audience in a way that a lot of people are truly uncomfortable with. Regardless of the morality of Medea’s decisions, it’s inarguable that the character, especially in the broken, dynamic and manipulative way that McCrory played her, holds all the cards.

Little Revolution. Credit to Tristram Kenton, The Guardian.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, where a character is powerless in the moment (at least from her perspective), is the story of Little Revolution, a verbatim play where actors are fed lines from real interviews through headphones and must repeat them, word for word, pause for pause, sneeze for sneeze and cough for cough. It’s a really intriguing way to perform, and definitely something I hadn’t seen before, however, I’m not sure it was entirely successful. Little Revolution follows the story of riots occurring in the Hackney area a few years ago, where locals started to riot because of the unfair ways police were treating people of colour. The “verbatim” lines are from interviews conducted during the riots by Alecky Blythe, who also created a character for herself inside the show. In theory, this sounds like a really engaging story, but I don’t think it was entirely successful. For me, there wasn’t enough from the actual riots – there was a lot of information from a committee Blythe was involved in afterwards, but very little from the people actually involved in the rioting. And as a white, middle class woman, Blythe is not the most trustworthy narrator. One of the students in my class pointed out that since she created a character for herself (and not always the most flattering one with a comical giggle and annoying vocal cadence), this pointed out how hypocritical it was for white people to try and “save” those of different races. Though I think if this was the juxtaposition that Blythe was going for, it should have been a little more satirical. Her place in society gave her a lot more privilege than a lot of the other people involved in the riots and that changed her perspective on it – for me, there wasn’t enough direct involvement with what was happening. It seemed to me that Blythe didn’t want to get her hands too dirty with engaging directly with those in the middle of the riots and that reflected poorly on the final performance.

The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd. Credit to News168.

From the modern day political issues, we jumped back to older ones and saw a performance of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd at the Orange Tree Theatre. As a quick interjection, this was one of my favourite spaces we saw a show in. It was tiny and in the round, bringing the audience right into the action. This worked well with this show specifically because a lot of it circles around the tension between the title character and her – edging on abusive – husband. This is a show that also really played with the dynamics of gender in a relationship. The show focuses on Mrs. Holroyd and her decisions in the marriage, which was a very forward-thinking perspective for 1914, the year it was written. In the performance itself, while it was not the best we had seen, it was engaging and dramatic. Mrs. Holroyd herself is a tower of emotional distress, torn between her husband and an electrician who proclaims his love to her. This puts her in an interesting position of power over both of them, because the decision is really hers. While she has nothing on her own, she has the ability to choose between her fates, an option not a lot of women had in that era.

Promotional poster for the RSC production of Love’s Labours Lost. Credit to Royal Shakespeare Company.

This is similar to the Victorian time period, in which our next show, Love’s Labours Lost was set. We saw this performance in Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare’s birth and burial place. This was a really interesting backdrop to have for this rendition of a rarely performed Shakespeare show. I was honestly not expecting to like the show as much as I did. I think it’s a hard one to do in an interesting way, but the Royal Shakespeare Company succeeded. And talk about a great show for observing gender dynamics. Shakespeare’s shows are always really intriguing when it comes to gender, what with all the cross-dressing and falling in love and confusing sexualities and beastiality and whatnot… that Love’s Labours Lost is actually pretty straightforward. With four couples – four men, four women, what else could ensue but lots of mixups? The thing I loved most about the show was the fact that the women were often the ones pulling the tricks on the men, even when the guys thought they were outsmarting the girls. Most importantly, in the end, it is the princess who tells the men that they should essentially wait a little while to get married and see what happens afterwards. Patience is a virtue that is not often respected when it comes to Shakespearian weddings, and that was a great, realistic ending that I wasn’t expecting from a Shakespeare play.

Actors in Pitcairn. Credit to Helena Miscioscia, The Londonist.

But realism wasn’t a big factor in the last show we saw, another performance at the Globe, but this time Pitcairn, a strange combination of cultures trying to work together to populate a new island. While it was definitely an entertaining show, I thought that the language of the show itself didn’t always mesh together. Sometimes it seemed like more modern-day language, then slipped back into what would be considered a more “period” English banter. In any case, the story itself was one dramatic event after another. The show was extremely sexually charged, something I definitely didn’t expect going into it, but learned to appreciate as it went on. This was another performance that really got me interested in how gender tied between all the shows we had seen – in the end of the show, the Tahitian women band together to essentially hold the men prisoners and kill one of the men on the island who violently raped some of the women (including one onstage, which was unexpected and I’m not sure was entirely necessary). The power dynamics of the island shift throughout the performance – just as in Love’s Labours Lost, even when the men think they control the women, the girls are simply manipulating the men to help them in ways they need help.

Overall, the shows we’ve seen in London have been phenomenal. There are interesting connections between all of them in ways that I don’t always see right away, but enjoy discussing in class and seeing threads that tie together. Adventures in Italy are the next journey, and more theatre after we return.

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