Measure for Measure and Rape Culture

With all the press around prominent men abusing their power lately, it’s perhaps natural that people have been reminded of Shakespeare and Middleton’s “problem play” Measure for Measure. One scene in particular is seeing renewed attention: having been told that she must have sex with the Duke’s deputy in order to save her brother’s life, Isabella tells the deputy (Angelo) that she will tell everyone, “with an outstretched throat,” what a hypocrite he is.

And he says, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?”

What’s more chilling is her echoing of this language several lines later, after Angelo has left the room: “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, / Who would believe me?” In the space of about a dozen lines, she’s internalized the message that Angelo’s word is worth more than her own.

It was this scene that stood out to me two and a half years ago, while watching a live stream of Cheek by Jowl’s Russian-language production of the play, with English surtitles. Like a good millennial, I was watching on my laptop with other browser windows open. In this configuration, I stumbled upon an article about Emma Sulkowicz, who carried her mattress at Columbia University to protest the handling of her sexual assault.

It struck me, with an almost physical force, how similar Isabella’s and Emma’s language about their assaults was, despite a 400-year gap between their stories. I started to wonder what would happen if these women could speak to each other, and the thought stuck with me for days.

We always say that Shakespeare’s plays are still relevant today, but is that necessarily a good thing?

Eventually, I decided to actually do something about what I was thinking and feeling. And Measure (still) for Measure was born.

I’ve been working on this project on and off for the past two years, in both private and public ways, but now seems like an opportune time to bring it out into the open more meaningfully.

Measure (Still) for Measure is about bringing intersectional feminism, physical theatre, and Shakespeare together. It’s about facilitating conversations and instigating policy change. It’s about helping students think and talk and work through these issues through performance. And it’s about speaking back to Shakespeare, taking back the canon, and asserting that, had this been Isabella’s story to tell, she probably would have told it differently.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll check out the project website, and share your feedback. It’s an evolving and growing project, with the next phase of workshops scheduled for February 2018. I’ll be keeping that site up to date with all the news.

I wish such a project wasn’t necessary, but that’s why I’m doing it: to educate the next generation so that the headlines we’ve been seeing lately will become extinct sooner rather than later.

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Review: The Changeling, 2015, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

After a long gestation period, I’m thrilled to announce that my review of the 2015 production of The Changeling at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has been published in the latest issue of Early Modern Literary Studies!

This was a pretty emotional review for me to write, partly because I had such strong feelings about the production, and partly because this was one of the first things I pulled together for publication out of my doctoral thesis. I’m grateful to the reviews editor, Dave Nicol, and to EMLS for letting me turn this into a sort of hybrid article-cum-review with more detail and research underpinning than usual.

As much as I had a lot of issues with the production, writing this chapter of my thesis totally changed the course of my academic goals, so in a weird way I’m grateful to the former Artistic Director for giving me so very much to write about. The digital culture side of this chapter is currently being prepared as a separate article, which I hope to have out next year. Keep your eyes peeled!

And, of course, let me know if you’d like to chat Globe, Changeling, or doing old plays in the present. I’m always game.

White Fragility Hijacked Hidden Figures

*with mountains of thanks to Sharanya for talking through ideas & recommending reading, as always x

So I finally, finally saw Hidden Figures on a flight recently, and of course, I loved it. The film tells the story of three black women working at NASA during the “space race” in the 1950s and ’60s—in the words of the poster, it’s the story of “the women you don’t know behind the mission you do.” Although all three of these women started working at NASA much earlier (and some of the events portrayed also took place much earlier—more on that later!), the film focuses on the run up to John Glenn’s orbit of the earth in the Friendship 7 spacecraft in 1962. The women featured are Katherine Johnson (Goble), played by Taraji P. Henson; Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer; and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe. Referred to as “computers,” these women were among the many—black and white—who did computational work for NASA before machines could. The movie is based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.

I started sobbing within the first five minutes, when little Katherine Goble stands in front of a blackboard and explains analytical geometry to a room full of students twice her age.

The women who anchor the film gave stunning, committed, nuanced performances, with cathartic moments of passionate, explosive resistance (Katherine shouting down her boss; Mary convincing a judge to let her attend night classes at a white high school) balanced by moments that showed the weariness of constant, quiet resistance (Katherine including her name on NASA reports despite her colleague’s insistence that “computers don’t write reports;” Dorothy being frog marched out of the public library with her young sons; Mary’s husband reminding her that NASA doesn’t hire any female engineers, let alone black female engineers).

The representations of black womanhood in the film are spectacularly complex, giving us rare examples of women—and especially women of color—allowed to be both good at their jobs and wholly, emotionally human on screen. Our first encounter with Spencer’s Dorothy shows her fixing a broken-down car, lying on her back under the front bumper and diagnosing the problem as a police car zooms down the road toward her. She bypasses the starter to get the car going, and we next see her passing out assignments and chastising late arrivals at NASA. She holds her composure in the face of blatant discrimination from Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell, who heads the division of white “computers” but, finally, vents to her friends on the drive home about the unfairness of doing the work of a supervisor without the pay or the title. Katherine and Mary back her up, verbalizing their support for their friend alongside their frustration with the systems that keep them from moving up. Dorothy, for her part, manages to bemoan her own situation while lifting up her friends, who have that day moved into more prestigious assignments: “Progress for any of us is progress for us all,” she says. It’s a stunning, nuanced portrayal of selfless solidarity mixed with personal rage against a rigged system.

Obviously, there’s a lot to love in the film. For one thing, its representation of intelligent, driven women of color gives the lie to the age-old stereotype of African-Americans specifically as lazy and/or stupid, especially in light of the historical context. These were real women who really made enormous contributions to NASA and the space race—there’s no spinning that as “political correctness.” This is important, necessary, and timely work: we need more representations of diverse bodies doing highly skilled jobs. We need more intersectional representation in leading roles in general, and we need it now. Hidden Figures is a great step forward in this respect.

But.

To put it bluntly: white fragility hijacked Hidden Figures.

I’m borrowing here from Robin DiAngelo, a scholar of whiteness studies, who first theorized the term in a 2011 article for the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. DiAngelo argues that “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress,” and that “[t]his insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress” (55). Because we so rarely have to confront our own race/race-based privilege, white and white-presenting North Americans can be extremely uncomfortable with the suggestion that they ascribe to racist beliefs or that they might be complicit in systems of race-based oppression—or even the idea that racism still exists at all. As Sara Ahmed puts it, privilege lies in the ability to not notice: “when you speak about racism, you become the one who [is perceived to] cause damage” by bringing up something that white and white-presenting people can usually forget, or fail to notice, or even become “invested in not noticing.”

This bring us back to Hidden Figures, which was directed by a white man, and which seems to go out of its way to soften or cushion its portrayal of 1960s racism in America for its white audiences. While there are gestures towards the ongoing fight for civil rights, references to Dr. King, and spectres of police brutality peppered throughout the film, segregation and racial discrimination are, overall, represented as inconvenient and unfair but not life-threatening. Katherine treks half a mile across NASA’s campus to use a “colored” restroom several times a day; Dorothy and her sons sit at the back of a bus after they’re escorted out of the library. Not-so-subtle differences in quality between the facilities provided for the “West Computing Group,” which is all black, and the “East Computing Group,” which is all white, are evident. There are one or two mentions of Brown v. Board of Education, but no one prevents Mary from entering or attending class in an all-white school once she gets her court order. We don’t see the really, really dark side of segregation in the early ’60s.

I say this not to diminish or underplay the cumulative weight of microaggressions, nor to suggest that these things—available bathrooms; freedom to choose a seat or use a library; updated, clean, well-lit work environments—are unimportant. Rather, my impression was that the film used these examples of segregation and discrimination rather than others in order to make its message more palatable to the white audiences who, among other things, make up ninety-some per cent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the body that awards Oscars).

There is certainly a counter-argument to be made: that depicting the subtler, systemic, unspectacular side of day-to-day existence under an oppressive regime (not too strong a description of segregation in America) is a powerful and potentially more transformative approach to changing hearts and minds; that racism is insidious and not always overt, and that films too often skew towards sensationalizing violence against black, brown, and female bodies (cf. Twelve Years a Slave). I am sympathetic to the argument that films could and should do a better job of showing us the exhausting challenge of just existing as a woman of color in America.

I don’t think that’s what Hidden Figures was doing, at least not intentionally. Comments from Theodore Melfi, the film’s director, suggest that such a portrayal wasn’t foremost in his mind when he created fictional white savior moments to punctuate Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s stories: “There needs to be white people who do the right thing,” he said, when asked.

There certainly are a lot of them. In the broken-down car scene that I mention above, the police officer initially behaves brusquely, but eventually acquiesces and even offers the women a police escort to Langley so they won’t be late for work. Beyond Katherine’s admonition to Mary—“No one wants to go to jail because of your mouth!”—as the cruiser approaches, there is very little suggestion that a white police officer might behave in anything other than a civil and professional manner towards women of color. This, we know, is untrue.

It’s not that white people don’t or never did “do the right thing”—it’s that there’s a conspicuous lack of white people who don’t “do the right thing,” either immediately or ultimately, in Hidden Figures. This is nothing less than an erasure of African-American history.

A key scene in commentary on the film’s white savior problem is the now-infamous “bathroom speech,” where Katherine explains to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) that she has to trek half a mile across Langley’s research campus to get to a “Colored” bathroom, so it takes her upwards of forty minutes just to relieve herself.

Although Harrison, Katherine’s boss, rages at her for always being absent when he needs her, he takes immediate action to desegregate NASA’s bathrooms as soon as he learns of the problem. He bashes down the “Colored” sign looming over the women’s restroom with sheer brute force. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” he announces, triumphantly, as he flings his crowbar to the ground and hulks off screen. A crowd of nameless black women look on, stunned.

As a number of critics (and Katherine Johnson herself) have pointed out, that’s not quite how it happened. In fact, NASA (then NACA) was desegregated by an untheatrical memo from associate director Floyd Thompson in 1958, three years before the film is set.

Aside from the historical inaccuracy (after all, it’s a movie, right?), the scenes of Katherine sprinting across campus, binders clutched to chest, or correcting calculations on the bathroom floor, are presented with a light touch. Pharrell Williams’ catchy, ’60s-inspired score bounces along as Katherine runs in her high heels, pushes her glasses off her nose, and drops paperwork en route to and from the bathroom. It’s almost comic: Katherine is inconvenienced, and we can see that it annoys her, but ultimately, it’s portrayed as no big deal until Harrison gets involved.

As Zeba Blay points out for The Huffington Post:

“the inclusion of the bathroom scene doesn’t make Melfi a bad filmmaker, or a bad person, or a racist. But his suggestion that a feel-good scene like that was needed for the marketability and overall appeal of the film speaks to the fact that Hollywood at large still has a long way to go in telling black stories, no matter how many strides have been made.”

I’ve talked about just two examples of scenes in which a white character behaved, well, better than many white people were behaving in 1961. There were many other scenes I could’ve picked. Don’t get me started on the contrived moment when Paul Stafford, one of Katherine Johnson’s fiercest antagonists in the film, lovingly delivers her a cup of coffee—a gesture intended, presumably, to smooth over the segregation of the coffee pots that occurs when Katherine begins working in the all-white division where she spends most of her time. As Ahmed says, “[s]moothing over often means: eliminating the signs of injury to create a fantasy of a whole.” It’s a sickly sweet moment, and it’s obviously designed to show us that Paul is actually a pretty good guy. He just had a little wobble there where he thought that black women weren’t really people, that’s all! Look at how Katherine’s hard work proved him wrong and won him over!

I could also talk about the pearls that Katherine’s co-workers pitch in to buy her when she gets demoted because they bought an IBM. This is the gift they choose because Katherine throws in an aside about not being able to afford the string of pearls that is supposed to be part of her dress code: “God knows you don’t pay negroes enough to afford pearls.” I would wish to point out to the filmmakers that she wasn’t complaining about not having a necklace; she was saying she wanted fair pay for her highly skilled work. But I guess jewellery softens the blow of being fired, anyway.

Enough. I don’t want to knock the movie. Like I say above, there’s a lot that’s great about it, and there’s a lot of good that’s come from its success. I’m glad it was made. I hope it inspires more mainstream cultural production that centers stories like Johnson’s, Vaughan’s, and Jackson’s.

But I also hope that the films already in progress, and those to come in the future, will think more critically and carefully about how they represent whiteness in stories about people of color. I hope that the next movie about women of color in STEM fields is brave enough to tackle their experiences from their perspectives unflinchingly. After all, their stories are compelling enough on their own.

Middleton and Shakespeare

I’ve been mulling over an SAA blog post for a couple weeks now, allowing everything to percolate before committing pen to paper (or…whatever the digital equivalent is). I’ve also been a little busy since returning from Atlanta rehearsing for a little show I’ve been working on. It’s taken me a while to get to this, but I’m glad that I waited. In my mulling time, Andy Kesson published some of his SAA thoughts to the Before Shakespeare blog; among other, equally important arguments, Kesson laments the centrality of Shakespeare even in settings that seem designed to sideline or transcend his influence. Sympathetic scholars–myself included–joined his lamentations on Twitter:

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Kesson’s frustrations struck a chord with many of us who think of ourselves as “early modernists” rather than “Shakespeareans.” For me, it rephrased an issue that had come up in the Middleton and Shakespeare seminar, which I audited at SAA.

Middleton and Shakespeare was an exciting and productive seminar in many ways, but there was one thing that troubled me. There seemed to be a consensus in the room that it was Shakespeare who instigated or initiated his collaborative relationship with Middleton.

When I asked the group about the evidence underpinning this claim, their answers felt unsatisfying: there is no hard evidence, but Shakespeare was the more senior playwright and a sharer in the King’s Men at the time. Plus, he wrote a greater proportion of the plays on which they collaborated. So it makes sense that he was the dominant collaborator.

But does it? Or rather: does “dominant playwright” automatically mean “initiating playwright”?

In the absence of hard evidence, allow me to speculate (or perhaps fantasize) about a different kind of collaborative relationship between Shakespeare and Middleton.

Middleton (or ThoMidd, as I affectionately call him to myself) was a freelancer and career collaborator in ways that Shakespeare never was. While it’s true that a greater proportion of Timon of Athens, for example, seems to be Shakespeare’s, I don’t think this automatically means that Shakespeare sought out Middleton for collaboration. Indeed, I think it’s far more plausible that Middleton sought out Shakespeare.

Think about it: around the time that Timon was being written, Middleton was in the midst of an intense legal battle with his wicked stepfather. He would’ve had a strong financial incentive to seek out additional work, if nothing else. But Middleton was always more of a “gig” writer than Shakespeare, who made his real money as a sharer in a company of players. In contrast, Middleton took a job as city chronologer and wrote pageants and court masques in addition to his plays and poems. He earned his living as a writer and collaborated often in all of the various forms and genres to which he contributed. He was a skilled collaborative writer. He was a freelancer for much of his career.

Any good freelancer knows that you can’t wait for the work to come to you. You have to go out and find it. Maybe it’s because I’m so very “on the market” right now, but I can easily picture Middleton–strapped for cash, looking for additional sources of income, and just beginning to make a name for himself–approaching Shakespeare with a pitch.

What impetus would Shakespeare have had to seek out a collaboration of this kind with a very junior colleague, unless he was astonishingly generous?  He was comfortably ensconced as a sharer and was effectively the house playwright for the King’s Men. He had job security in a way that Middleton did not at the time. Perhaps this created an environment in which he felt safe taking a risk on a collaboration with a talented but less experienced writer. Perhaps he was feeling stuck and needed another head in the mix to shake things up. There are, of course, a million possible reasons why a senior, comfortably employed Shakespeare might seek out the assistance of an up-and-comer like Middleton.

But based on the evidence available, isn’t it as least as likely that it was the other way around?

 

SAA Provocation: Shakespeare and Fan Theory

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing! I’m working on a bunch of projects as I navigate the academic job market (again). So here’s something new that I tested out on my Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) workshop group. I’m hoping to build this idea up into an article, so any feedback will be very much appreciated 🙂

It’s a provocation: adaptations of Shakespeare should be more like fan fiction.

Building on Abigail De Kosnik’s work in Rogue Archives, this provocation theorizes adaptations of Shakespeare in relation to fan fiction. Can we understand the derision that sometimes follows adaptations of Shakespeare as similar to the derision that accompanies fandom? Do Shakespeare adaptations occupy a queer and feminine space in the way that De Kosnik suggests fan fiction does? What does fan theory offer scholars of Shakespeare in adaptation and adapters of Shakespeare that other theories of adaptation do not?

Shakespearean adaptation—like fanfic—is both granted and stripped of legitimacy by virtue of its relationship to the source text or ‘canon.’ Fanfic, like some of the best adaptation, often grows out of a love-hate relationship with the canon: fans obsess even as they recognise the shortcomings of their chosen source text. As Aja Romano puts it in her analysis of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical sensation, “Hamilton is fanfic, which means its function is partly to argue with its canon, not to simply celebrate it” (np). In Shakespeare terms, this impulse to “argue with the canon” can manifest along a spectrum from Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female casts at the Donmar Warehouse to wholly re-written or re-imagined takes on the plays such as the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

For the purposes of this short paper, I am particularly interested in De Kosnik’s assessment of fan fiction archives as queer and feminine spaces. Without claiming that these “rogue archives” “close gaps in computing access or skill between large numbers of people”, De Kosnik does argue—convincingly—that they are “archives of women’s digital culture and queer digital culture” (10-11, 12). Put another way, fan fiction archivists “pry open ‘the archive’—digital cultural memory writ large—to include their idiosyncratic repositories, and thus foist some measure of democratization onto the field of contemporary archival practice” (18). They appropriate the tools of traditional, institutional archivists (18) in order to rewrite and even transcend the canon (21). Indeed, De Kosnik argues, rogue archives are “intrinsically opposed to the very notion of canonicity” (21).

De Kosnik’s ground-breaking work obviously has a number of implications for Shakespeareans. Here, however, I aim to focus on the opposition to canonicity developed through spaces that are explicitly and emphatically identified as female and queer. De Kosnik identifies fan fiction sites and their archives as “sites in which women and girls can feel that they are participating in a tradition of female writing and reading, and can experience a sense of safety in numbers” (135). As a result, “fan archives facilitate numerous acts of representation and communication that exceed the bounds of heteronormativity” (135).

De Kosnik also identifies in female-authored fan fiction an impulse that drives many adapters of Shakespeare: she reads female fan authorship “as a response by women and girls to a media culture in which they rarely see their own narrative priorities and preferences play out, and so feel compelled to create their own versions” (142). While she is not uncritical of the links that have been made between fan culture and queer culture, De Kosnik also notes that fan spaces can function—“as explicitly queer spaces do”—“as simultaneously ‘safe spaces’ and spaces of targeting” (147). Fan archives are also queer in the sense that they shift the center of the conversation, creating spaces for a cultural archive that is not canonical or mainstream. Fanfic therefore has much to teach Shakespeareans not only in terms of a more relaxed relationship to a canon, but also in terms of providing models for taking genuine risks in terms of casting and dramaturgy. Fanfic frequently recasts the main characters, bringing in a more diverse range of voices than is typically encountered in the canons it represents. And so, I suggest, Shakespeare adaptations, particularly those commissioned by major companies, should be more like fanfic in its willingness to depart from canon and take genuine risks in terms of casting, dramaturgy, and politics.

A useful lens through which to consider this provocation is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “contemporary translations” because of the tension between the democratizing intent of the project and the potential pitfalls revealed by its parameters. Play On! proudly includes voices of women and people of color among the playwrights commissioned for the project (“Play On!”). OSF is also well known for its inclusive casting policies.

The OSF website, however, is absolutely clear that “The Play On translations will not be adaptations” because “Everything to do with setting, time period, references, etc. will remain unchanged […], pop-culture references and contemporary slang will not be appropriate, and the politics of the original plays will not be cut or ‘fixed’ in any way” (“Further Reading”). Despite this, the project claims to be following a path of “experimentation, exploration, and changing the language.” As an adapter of Shakespeare, I’m intrigued by this deliberate separation between “experimentation” and “adaptation.” Experimentation, it seems, is important, meaningful, expository work—an effort that will appropriately “celebrate Shakespeare’s masterworks.” Adaptation, on the other hand, is framed as reductive, destructive, inappropriate, or—worst of all—trendy, informed by “pop-culture references and contemporary slang.” I wonder to what extent these paraded women and writers of color will be able to represent themselves under these restrictions, especially given that American pop culture and slang are derisively coded ‘Black.’ From my point of view, the emphasis placed on fidelity to Shakespeare undermines the potentially subversive work to be done in ‘translating’ Shakespeare for twenty-first-century audiences. Rather than leaving space to “argue with its canon,” the project seems to insist that the canon is unassailable.

Without having seen any of the finished products, of course, it is hard to say what these translations will ultimately achieve. Based on the information made available to the public, however, it strikes me that the safe and inclusive spaces of De Kosnik’s fan fiction archives are not echoed in OSF’s Play On project to the extent that they ought to be. If anything, the ghosts of pale, male, and stale critics, board members, and donors (exemplified, perhaps, by Shakespeare himself) haunt the initiative, preventing it from fulfilling its genuinely revolutionary potential. These spectres raise a chilling question: what is at stake in refusing to capitulate to institutional demands that Shakespeare be kept, somehow, intact? In mitigating these risks, perhaps adaptors of Shakespeare can look to fan fiction for precedents.

 

De Kosnik, Abigail. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Boston: MIT Press, 2016.

Romano, Aja. Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point.” Vox. 4 July 2016. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play On! Further Reading.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

Assault isn’t edgy, so let’s stop pretending: reviewing Filter’s Midsummer

Last night, I had the opportunity to see Filter Theatre‘s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. There’s a LOT that I liked about the production. Midsummer is one of those plays that bores me to tears and brings out my angry feminist most of the time, and Filter’s production certainly wasn’t boring. It definitely brought out my angry feminist, but more on that later.

CN for descriptions of sexual assault

Not sure how necessary this one is, but the show is still touring, so: SPOILERS AHEAD.

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First, the good stuff. Filter’s production is really, really good at fun surprises. Oberon and Puck burst through walls, ceilings, and floors; Demetrius does a pretty spot-on Michael Jackson impersonation; and an audience plant joins the show as Bottom after a stage manager comes on to let us know that the “celebrity guest” got stuck in the lift. There’s excellent sexual innuendo with the love potion flower juice stuff. There’s a food fight. There are some good physical gags around who can and can’t see Puck and Oberon when they’re “invisible”.  And, as you’d expect from Filter, there’s some great stuff with sound. It’s a fun production. Like I said, definitely not boring.

Despite all the fun, I had two pretty basic problems with the production: 

1. Sexual assault is not cool or funny or cute. 

2. The Shakespeare was bad. And not in an ’80s way.

Let’s take those one at a time.

I shouldn’t even have to put this in writing, but as I said on my Facebook page after the show last night, I’m getting really sick of otherwise cool and/or interesting productions (especially of Shakespeare) that seem to think gratuitous sexual assault makes them “edgy”. It doesn’t. It’s gross. And it definitely should not be played for laughs.

I saw this in the RSC Cymbeline in August, and I saw it again in Filter’s Midsummer last night. I can’t tell if this is a trend, or if I’m just paying better attention because of my own adaptation project with Measure for Measure. Either way, it sucks.

For those of you who don’t know Midsummer, I’ll give a bit of context, because the plot is actually important here. In the play, there are two hetero couples with a little bit of a love triangle problem. Hermia and Lysander are in love with each other, but Demetrius also wants Hermia and has her father’s permission to marry her. Athenian law dictates that Hermia must either acquiesce to her father, become a nun, or be killed. Yay. Demetrius has previously sworn his love to another woman, Helena, who is still desperately in love with him. He’s a gentleman.

Hermia and Lysander decide to run away through the woods, and disclose their plan to Helena. Helena tells Demetrius of their flight, and he pursues them into the woods. Helena follows Demetrius, despite his protestations that he does not nor he cannot love her and his threats to rape her if she keeps following him (well, his words are “do thee mischief in the wood” but he also talks about her the “rich worth of [her] virginity”, so…you do the math).

Meanwhile, Oberon, king of the fairies, has a love potion that makes you desire the first thing you see upon awaking from sleep. He’s using it to abuse his wife (we’ll come back to that!), but he sees Demetrius and Helena fighting and decides she should have that man, dammit! So Oberon instructs his servant Puck to lay the potion on the eyes of a man wearing Athenian garments. Puck finds Lysander, mistakes him for Demetrius, and administers the love juice. The first person that Lysander sees when he wakes is Helena.

And that’s where Filter’s production went very, very wrong.

Helena, tired from chasing a dickface through the woods, pauses to catch her breath. She sees Lysander lying on the ground, and rouses him, concerned the he might be dead: “If you live, good sir, awake!”

And wake he does, immediately professing his love for Helena and his newfound hatred for Hermia. Helena is at first confused and then indignant, convinced that Lysander is cruelly mocking her miserable single life. But Lysander is persistent, insisting that he does hate Hermia and love Helen.

This is one of those tricky scenes in which someone wants to get away and has a very good reason for wanting to leave, but they can’t actually vacate the stage until they’ve said all their lines. Most productions get around this problem by creating energetic chase scenes, chock-full of near-misses, leapfrogs, and furniture tossing. This is, in itself, a little problematic, right? No Means No, Lysander. But I suppose the text must be served.

Filter’s production, however, takes things one step further. This time, Helena is prevented from leaving the stage because Lysander is physically and sexually assaulting her. Check out some of the lines that Filter’s Helena delivers while Lysander’s head is between her legs and she’s trying to push him away:

Good troth, you do me wrong–good sooth, you do–

In such disdainful manner me to woo.

But fare you well. Perforce I must confess

I thought you a lord of more gentleness.

(3.1.129-33, Norton)

Helena ends up on the ground, with Lysander engaging in some non-consensual heavy petting and over-the-clothes cunnilingus before she finally gets away.

But here’s the kicker: when Helena stands up, she has a moment where it seems like she kinda enjoyed it despite herself. With a little giggle and a coy look at Lysander, she bends at the hips and puts her hands over her crotch, then looks embarrassed and runs away.

The whole thing is played for laughs. The band/Mechanicals watch and do nothing. The take-home message for the students sitting next to me, as Roberta Barker and Dave Nicol once observed, is absolutely horrific: “Although the victim may seem unwilling, in fact it’s all a bit of saucy fun”. As Barker and Nicol go on to say, “this is hardly a productive of way of interpreting ourselves to ourselves” in a time and place where “rape victims are still subjected to humiliating cross-examinations about their sexual pasts on the witness stand”.

And that’s without considering the abuse that Titania undergoes for having the audacity to stand up for herself, or the whole Theseus/Hippolyta thing, or the fact that Demetrius and Helena end up together in the end. Can we also please stop pretending like two guys kissing each other is super good comedy? K, thanks.

Oh, and let’s not forget the part, in Filter’s production, where Lysander starts a food fight by chucking buns at a defeated, prone Hermia, who has been convinced that the guy willing to flee his home with her two scenes ago now hates her guts. SO FUNNY, RIGHT?

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This leads me on to my second problem with Filter’s Midsummer: the Shakespeare bits.

Now, anyone who knows me may be surprised to find me complaining about “the Shakespeare”. I’m generally totally on board with slicing, dicing, deep-frying, digesting, and regurgitating Shakespeare as much as you darn well please. My friends and I cut the Duke from Measure for Measure for Pete’s sake. Yes, we really did. So why am I so bugged by this cut-up, no-interval, super-fun production’s treatment of Shakespeare?

To be honest, I’m having trouble putting my finger on it. But I think it’s sort of connected to the sexual assault problem. Let me explain.

What are the stereotypes about Shakespeare from people who don’t like Shakespeare, or haven’t encountered much Shakespeare? He’s boring. He’s hard to understand. Too many rhymes. So old-fashioned. Filter’s production confirmed every single one of these stereotypes. Their delivery of lines from Shakespeare was, on the whole, stilted, forced, boring, and rushed. It was like they had so much fun making the play that they forgot to do the play.

I’m going to caveat this next part by saying that I have no idea if someone who’s unfamiliar with Midsummer would’ve been able to the tell the difference between the “verbatim” Shakespeare and the paraphrased, improvised, rewritten, or newly written bits. But Midsummer has some extremely purple passages, and it’s very rhyme-y, and so it was painfully obvious to me when they were doing “the Shakespeare”. And it was also painfully obvious that they thought their material was way funnier than Shakespeare’s.

Who am I to disagree? A lot of what they were up to genuinely was way funnier than Shakespeare. Nerdy superhero Oberon and sound tech Puck watching the four-way love triangle fight from lawn chairs with snacks like they were in a cinema? GENIUS. Monty Python-style coconuts for Bottom-as-Ass walking around the stage? COMEDY GOLD. Oberon zooming around on a wheelie chair pretending to fly? WIN.

HOWEVER. That dynamic creates an impression that Filter are putting up with Shakespeare in order to have a marketable vehicle for their brand of screwball comedy. That’s absolutely fine, to an extent. But that implied relationship to Shakespeare makes it too easy to write off the stuff that isn’t funny–like that pesky sexual assault thing–as part of Shakespeare and not part of Filter.

I think that’s what I found so irritating about their failure to perform the Shakespeare bits well: it allowed them to gloss over the sticky relationship situations we find at the end of the play. Helena has Demetrius because he’s under a spell; Hermia has had her faith in Lysander seriously challenged; and Titania has basically been date-raped. None of these merit more than a passing glance in Filter’s production, because that would get in the way of the fun part where Bottom-as-Pyramus pretends to be dead for so long that everyone laughs.

My point is that it’s all well and good making Shakespeare more fun or more accessible. I’m totally and completely on board with that as a goal. But I’m not on board with productions that get away with ignoring or even endorsing the play’s really sticky politics because there was that funny bit with a spray can of whipped cream.

 

The Taming of the Shrew, Cymbeline, and the World Shakespeare Congress

I’m in decompression mode, having spent last week immersed in one of the largest gatherings of Shakespeareans and early modernists on the planet, the World Shakespeare Congress. It’s been an incredible learning experience, and a great chance to catch up on what’s happening in Shakespeare studies–not to mention an opportunity to mingle with the “greats” and catch up with friends and colleagues from around the world. I think most delegates would agree that the exorbitant cost of admission was worth it just for the phenomenal plenary talk by Adrian Lester and Ayanna Thompson.

What’s sticking in my mind this afternoon, however, is not the amazing conversations I had or the cool people I met, but the webs connecting the RSC’s current production of Cymbeline, the Globe’s Taming of the Shrew, and the issues of intersectional feminism raised for me by participation in the WSC. We must always be allowed to critique the things we love, and that’s what I’m attempting to do here.

The director of the Shakespeare Institute, Michael Dobson, welcomed us on the first morning of the Congress with a brief history of Shakespeare-commemorative events in Stratford. Highlighting the pale, male, and stale qualities of a 1964 conference committee, Dobson quipped that the current representation was much better–though they were still “working on it”. The room responded with a mix of groans, applause, and chatter. Sarah Olive tweeted:

I have to confess that “working on it” is one of my least favourite institutional euphemisms. It implies that there aren’t scores of people who don’t fit the narrow old, white dude mould ready and waiting to step in if given the opportunity–which is absurd. All it took was a look around the assembled WSC delegates to realise that the old stereotype of an academic as an older gent in elbow patches is on its way out.

And yet, out of seven advertised plenary speakers (not including the “international directors” speaking with Tom Bird on Saturday morning), there were two women and two people of colour–Ayanna Thompson, as a black woman, counts for one in each category, and she wasn’t even speaking on her own. Adrian Lester was amazing, but I would very happily have watched Professor Thompson give a full plenary lecture in her own right. Claire van Kampen, too, shared the stage with Gordon McMullan, who welcomed us to the London portion of the event, and Bill Barclay, the Globe’s director of music. Following van Kampen’s lecture, the first question was directed at Mark Rylance–who had not participated in the lecture and, to his credit, gracefully deflected attention back to van Kampen. The women and PoC involved in the final discussion between international directors of Shakespeare were framed by and filtered through the chairmanship of Tom Bird, the Globe’s Executive Producer, whose photograph was displayed on the conference website and in the printed programme.

So it seemed fitting, in many ways, to end the week with the final performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. Taming is one of those plays that make life very difficult for the people who like to argue that Shakespeare was some kind of enormously open-minded and forward-thinking proto-feminist. This particular production, directed by Caroline Byrne, tackled the play’s gender problems partly through a darkened tone, in which Petruchio is portrayed as the sort of “nice guy” that many of us will recognise: he’s friendly and funny and chatty and flirty until you try to say “no” to him, at which point he turns nasty.

The flip-flopping between the genuinely funny and the truly disturbing highlighted the complicity of the audience in Kate’s torture. More than once I found myself laughing, only to stop and realise, “wait, that isn’t funny”. When Petruchio first deployed his famous “Kiss me, Kate”–playing the following line “We’ll be married o’Sunday” as coercive–Hortensio encouraged the audience to join in a chant of “KISS! KISS! KISS!” with him, as Kate herself weighed her options. The audience’s willingness to pressure her into a kiss was genuinely unsettling, especially given that we had just witnessed a scene in which Kate made it abundantly clear that she wanted nothing to do with Petruchio.

Interestingly, the production’s figuring of Petruchio’s violent and controlling side contrasted sharply with the presentation of masculine power in the RSC’s Cymbeline, which I had a last-minute opportunity to catch on the second night of the conference (THANK YOU to the previous owner of my ticket, who was generous enough to give it away for free!).

Despite casting Cymbeline as a Queen rather than a King (and making the evil Queen an evil Duke), Melly Still’s production presented a highly sexualised, dystopian view of masculine power, including a number of gratuitous sexual assaults. It seemed to me that Byrne and the Shrew cast largely avoided the presentation of sexual and even physical violence between the two protagonists, choosing instead to represent Petruchio’s psychological abuse of Kate. This choice to abstract the physical side of abuse was, perhaps, a desire to avoid sensationalising. But the production didn’t shy away from the physical effects of Petruchio’s “reign” on Kate herself. It’s the first production I’ve seen that keeps Kate in her increasingly tattered and dirtied wedding clothes throughout the second half, for example, taking Petruchio’s dismissal of the Tailor’s efforts to its logical extreme.

By contrast, Still’s Cymbeline never resisted an opportunity to present sexual violence to the audience. While the Iachimo scene was appropriately disturbing, sexual assault became a shorthand for “danger” in the production as a whole, a lazy way to over-indicate which characters were in control and which were not. Cymbeline’s trousers were removed when she was captured by the Romans, as if it wasn’t already clear that she was in a vulnerable and dangerous situation. Watching from the safe distance of the upper gallery of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I wondered how complicit those sitting in the front rows, mere inches away from Cloten’s assault of Pisania, for example, felt during the performance.

Complicity is the note I’d like to end on here, and the thread linking Shrew, Cymbeline, and the WSC in my mind this afternoon. As much as I am convinced that it is important to be physically present–to be “numbered in the song” as Kate sings in the Globe’s Shrew–to what extent are we complicit in perpetuating, for example, all-male, all-white panels, unbalanced plenary line-ups, and the comfortable notion that “working on it” is enough by our mere attendance? Am I numbered among those chanting “KISS! KISS! KISS!” despite (or because of) my silence, guilty by association? What but our continued, insistent presence can change the demographics of the decision makers? What more should I be doing?