Swapping gender in Shakespeare

Director Miriam Goldstein reinvents Shakespeare 

Robin Luckwaldt as Henry V. (centre) Olivia Ridpath(left) and Rebecca Lashmar (right).
Photo supplied by Miriam Goldstein

On June 7, the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning hosted a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V that put a twist on the original.

Created by The Edge Productions, the play was set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic war and the cast was entirely composed of women. 

Having a traditionally male-dominated work put on by an all-female cast doesn’t only change a familiar play, but it also leads audiences to consider their own ideas and assumptions about gender and theatre. 

Director and producer Miriam Goldstein told The Journal over the phone that the company’s Henry was “very contemplative.”

“He was violent but he was also very lovely at times. By the time you get to the end of the play, you’re like, rooting for [antagonist Prince] Hal to win, and I’ve never rooted for Hal to win in my whole life because he’s such a smarmy bastard,” she said of Henry’s character. 

Goldstein went on to praise her cast’s ability to give the characters an emotional depth that might have been missed in other interpretations of the play. She creditsRobin Luckwaldt, who starred as Henry, for giving the character an unexpected humanity. 

“She’s so sensitive and her emotional life is like a zipper. She undoes it and it all comes out, you get to the end and you’re really rooting for this romance to happen. You forget all the weird things that he said about mowing down flowering infants, you can ignore that and root for him here,” Goldstein said.  

While Luckwaldt opens up the character to the audience’s empathy, she doesn’t shy from Henry’s traditional ferocity. 

The production encouraged the all-women cast to “explore characters who are tall and brawny and violent,” Goldstein said.

In that decision, Luckwaldt tackled the challenge of effectively communicating the violence of the characters through a 5’2” body without losing power.  

When asked if she ever worried about losing any important aspects of the text when gender-swapping the cast, Goldstein had a simple answer: “No.” 

“You’re not negating their maleness necessarily, you’re not stripping these characters of their masculinity, it’s not like you’re taking away something that inherently makes them who they are, you’re just exploring the characters and bringing [in] a lived female experience which helps you explore their different sides,” she told The Journal. 

When planning the production, Goldstein mentioned that they specifically chose to do a war play not only because the characters are predominantly male, but because it explores an experience that women have been historically barred from. 

She said with war plays, “women don’t have access to that text, don’t have permission to embody that.” 

She was reminded any sort of artistic deviation from the original play always feels like a great risk, but classical theatre is malleable and exploration often pays off.

“Shakespeare is meant to be reinvented, and he didn’t care about anachronism. [He] didn’t care about those things we seem to care so deeply about, so you look at it and say, ‘as long as I’m not [ruining] the meter, destroying what I see as the heart of a particular story, I think, ‘okay!’” she said. 

While the response to the play was positive, Goldstein mentioned that her team had experienced some pushback before preforming. She told The Journal the production “was called, at some point, by one of the trolls on the internet, a ‘feminist ploy’ … and that’s not what the exploration was about.”   

The company was able to open up Henry V to new emotional undertones by adding a gender swapped perspective, and it was a hit with the crowds. 

Goldstein said their next big production is Edward II by Christopher Marlowe. She’s hoping to achieve the fresh portrayals of characters done with Henry V, and is planning another single gender cast—but this time, all male. 

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