Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Merely Dramaturgy: Tatty Hennessy on gendering Shakespeare

Merely Theatre in association with The Production Exchange present

Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet

For 2017, Merely Theatre embark on second national tour of genderblind work with two of Shakespeare’s best loved shows performed in rep.

Presented in Merely Theatre’s signature stripped-back style, the plays overflow with energy and
urgency, seeking to blow the cobwebs off Shakespeare. Merely’s productions are raucous and joyous, stirring and visceral.
Merely’s commitment to gender-blind practice means actors rehearse their five-hand productions in male-female pairs, generating twice the amount of ideas for each role, while halving the rehearsal time for each individual. 

A man and a woman play each set of parts alternately across the venues on the tour; a male Juliet, a female Malvolio - any combination is possible.

Much has been made of the death of repertory theatre. Doing multiple shows at once, working with
the same actors, learning a huge breadth of parts, immersion in the classics, and stretching an actor’s range are just some of the advantages of which theatre luminaries have mourned the loss. 

For some, that loss was too much to take. So, Merely Theatre started as a way for a company of actors to work
together discovering the best way to put on Shakespeare’s plays. 

Rep is not dead, it has evolved.

A Younger Theatre said something about your 'ethics'. Can you explain a little about what these are, and how they inform your approach to theatre?

Merely Theatre believe in equal employment – we have a 50:50 gender split both in the company of actors and directors (myself and artistic director Scott Ellis), because we believe Shakespeare should be accessible for everyone. We believe in an open connection between a performer and the audience. 

We have a set of principals we apply in rehearsals, covering rehearsal etiquette, preparation, approach to text and performance, and a large part of that is including the audience, really speaking to them, really inviting them to the party. We also believe Shakespeare can and should be engaging, clear and intelligible to everyone, from an early modern scholar to a schoolkid who’s never read any before. 

Shakespeare is sometimes an easy choice for a company, but I get the feeling that you are interested in doing something a little different. How well do the plays adapt to to your gender-blind casting: did you choose them for any other reasons?

There are now lots of companies doing exciting things with Shakespeare and gender and it is thankfully becoming the norm to include some form of gender-blind casting when producing Shakespeare, but nobody does it quite like us.  We don’t change the genders of the characters, and we don’t encourage the performers to ‘perform’ male- or- femaleness. 

We’re more interested in almost stripping the genders away and being left with character and story. So really any of Shakespeare’s plays fits with our ethos – last year for example we did Henry V, so we’ve now done comedy, history and tragedy and all work beautifully. But it does kind of feel like Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night in particular are perfect for our gender blind approach. Twelfth Night is already a gender-bending comedy of mistaken identity so fits perfectly not only with gender-blind casting but also with the slightly mad multi-rolling that such a small-cast production needs. And as for Romeo & Juliet, it’s a real joy to half of the time get to see a woman perform Romeo, and a man perform Juliet.  
You mention an enthusiasm for the 'Rep' approach: and I am not sure I have seen that in a long time. How did you become interested in it - and what does the 'rep' mean to you?

Working as a repertory company is certainly unusual, especially for a fringe company. However, we believe it has huge benefits. We’re all constantly immersed in Shakespeare, and in the particular style of Shakespeare Merely perform. It means our company have been honing their text skills, their chemistry as a group, their practice and ethos, for over two years now. We can hit the ground running every rehearsal. 

It also means we’re a family. We’ve known each other so long, we’ve worked together so closely, we have an intimacy and a short hand, a familiarity and a shared spark that I’m sure comes across on stage. It also means that everyone has a real stake in the success of the company – we all feel like we own it, like it’s ours. I think that’s what rep means to me, a dedicated and disciplined group of professional friends working communally to further their own craft in the pursuit of great storytelling.

I am not quite sure how the casting approach would work - can you elaborate on how that goes, in terms of the 'pairs' and gender swapping?

We’re a company of ten actors, five men and five women, but we perform every play with just five. Every character is double cast with a pair of a man and a woman, so you could end up watching a male or female Romeo, or a male or female Sir Toby, and it’s kind of up to chance what combinations of performers you get on the night. 

It’s an idea rooted in original practise – Shakespeare's women would have been played by men – opened out slightly and allowing us to have equal representation and employment. It also allows wonderful actors – male and female – the chance to play roles they wouldn’t otherwise play.

Merely Theatre ROMEO & JULIET and TWELFTH NIGHT 2017 UK Tour - REHEARSAL TRAILER from Rob Myles on Vimeo.

Even once the cobwebs are blown off, is there anything in Romeo and Juliet that can still surprise a contemporary audience?

Absolutely! Firstly, I think there’s a danger in assuming that any classic play is covered in ‘cobwebs.’  We work in theatre and have a predisposition to know and love these plays, but a lot of the audiences we perform to have never seen Shakespeare before, so you have to balance surprise with clarity and care for storytelling. I also think people bring a lot of preconceptions to this play that it’s fun to slightly subvert – we all know it’s a moving tragedy, but there’s also so much warmth and laughter and I think people are often surprised by how much of that we bring out. 

A play also always takes on new resonances
depending on the time in which it’s performed. For me what rings so clearly from this production is actually how conventional gender roles shape and limit our lives – the tragedy of Juliet being denied power over her destiny by her father, the tragedy of Romeo picking up a sword as he laments how love has made him ‘effeminate’. 

We don’t cast gender-blind to make a point or observation about gender in the plays – effectively we’re stripping that away – but invariably it brings out elements of the text that explore the performative nature of gender, and I think that’s particularly exciting with these two plays.

And isn't there a danger in Twelfth Night that gender-swapping will complicate an already complex plot?

Oh god yes. It’s something we’ve been very aware of. But I think Twelfth Night is a comedy of complexity. In fact I think juggling complexity, dancing on that knife edge, is kind of the root of a lot of great comedy. So we’ve embraced it, and worked even harder on our storytelling – simple but effective costume design, constantly involving the audience in every beat, every performer knowing which beats of the story they’re responsible for looking after and making sure they land. 

It’s definitely a tight-rope but there’s few things more joyful to watch on stage than perfectly choreographed chaos! 

Artistic Director Scott Ellis comments, We’ve done our best to recreate that same atmosphere and
attitude from the old rep system. The discipline and the technique, the focus. The commitment to
making every time we’ve done it the best time we’ve done it. We put in the work, we sweat it hard, and
out of that pressure cooker come some extraordinary things. It’s an exhilarating way to work. We are
doing raw, pure Shakespeare, the kind people get swept up in and excited by.

Running time 115 minutes 
Artistic Director Scott Ellis
Associate Director Tatty Hennessey
Set/Costume Designer Florence Hazard
Lighting Designer Christopher Nairne
Producer Emmy Rose
Content Producer Robert Myles
Cast Ffion Jones
Robert Myles
Sarah Peachey
Luke Barton
Tamara Astor
Stephen Leask
Emmy Rose
Simon Grujich
Hannah Ellis
David Gerits

Merely Theatre
The actors, the audience, the text. Merely is characterised by playful use of space and audience
interaction. Their dynamic, irreverent but focused use of text ensures modern audiences are as
engaged and entertained as when the words were written. 

10th May The Old Town Hall, High Street, Hemel Hempstead HP1 3AE
22nd – 23rd May Lowther Pvillion, West Beach, Lytham St Anne's, Lancashire FY8 5QQ

24th – 25th May Theatre Royal Wakefield, Drury Lane, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, WF1 2TE

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