Touch wood, but it looks like we may be on the brink of women playing male roles properly becoming A Thing. Michelle Terry has just been announced as the most recent in a line of women taking on Shakespearian roles traditionally played by male actors – and not just the odd diplomat or lord but big, meaty, authoritative leading roles. Terry’s Henry V will join Glenda Jackson’s Lear this year, to add to a list that in recent times has included Maxine Peake’s Hamlet and Phyllida Lloyd’s all female Henry IV and Julius Caesar.
There’s also Pippa Nixon. Currently playing Ariel in The Tempest at the Sam Wanamaker theatre, Nixon is now on her second male role from the canon – third, if you count Rosalind-as-Ganymede in As You Like It (RSC, 2014). If I’m at all worried that this means she’s chatted gender to death already, I don’t need to be – it’s very much on her mind.
Rafaella Marcus: So obviously within The Tempest you’re playing Ariel, and you’ve now done a series of Shakespearean roles that are traditionally played with male actors. How did that come about?
Pippa Nixon: I suppose the first one was The Bastard (RSC, 2012). At the time I didn’t know much about King John and I read the play about three times, and was like “Wow, okay, it’s quite a lot to take.” And then working with Maria Aberg in the room, I completely fell in love with the part, and the play. The thing which I love about Maria is that she read it, and for her the ‘in’ was making the Bastard a woman, and then the play just opened out. And it was great.
RM: But there was a pressure on it to succeed?
PN: Absolutely. We spent quite a lot of time just convincing the rest of the cast that “No, this is a woman. This isn’t a woman playing a boy, this is completely inverting the gender.” So it did feel like there were a few battles just within the company – and Maria had quite a lot on her hands having to convince big people at the RSC that this was going to work. So it was incredibly humbling and ambitious and exciting and felt like not many people had done this at the time that we did it, and it really worked, and I think that’s just because we invested all of ourselves in it, because it was a risk. But amazingly, when people watched it they accepted it, and it got great reviews.
RM: And when you have to fight those battles, to convince everyone, does it feel like there’s then higher stakes when you’re granted permission to do it? Even Emma Rice bringing a 50-50 gender split policy to the Globe – that’s been met with resistance.
PN: Yes. It’s bonkers, and even from some critics, these things are met with resistance. I think the stakes are higher. When we did King John we had quite a long time of feeling really anxious about whether it would work, and then something clicked and we were like, “Look, at the end of the day, this is the story that we want to tell, and we’re telling it with as much integrity and passion and truthfulness and honesty as we can”, and actually you know that helped. Because it was doing it with an absolute belief that this is the way we want to tell the story.
RM: And now that we are opening ourselves up and allowing ourselves to see these roles played by people who weren’t originally envisaged as played them, there’s so many ways to skin that cat – do we have women playing the role as written or change the text? When you played the Bastard, did you change the pronouns in it – did you alter the text?
PN: I think we did a little bit. Yes, we must have done. And a few times other people in the company would go “he” – and we would all go “she! she!”. What I love about the Bastard is that there’s a bit of the Clown about him, but there’s also a hero, there’s also something mischievous, someone that has lost their family and then inherited a whole new family. But then being asked to do something out of her comfort zone, the killing of the young boy, Arthur – when you play that scene as a woman, you can’t help but have some maternal instincts towards the young prince.
RM: So with those male characters, is there a process of bringing the role to you?
PN: Of course. Absolutely, there totally is. The great thing is about playing The Bastard is then when you are fighting for England versus France – it’s suddenly like the warrior or the Amazon comes out of you, you suddenly feel like Joan of Arc. And it sounds silly, but there was one scene where the lords approach me, and say that I’ve killed the Prince. And in our show I pulled a gun on them, and they pulled swords. And the guys in the company were so resistant – saying “Oh, we’d overthrow her”, and Maria was going, “Guys, she’s got a gun!” And I was thinking that you don’t question that in films…
RM: No one questions it in Indiana Jones.
PN: No, exactly – you don’t question it. But it was, and I’m sad to say, these were older members of the company who I was very fond of but it just felt like a massive battle. Things like that were hard.
RM: I’m just thinking, why do people find it so difficult to accept women in those parts? Beyond just garden-variety sexism. And I wonder if what’s so difficult is that when we have women playing those male parts – especially those parts like the Bastard, or lords – is that we’re still not used to seeing women in authority that’s supported by a structure or an institution.
PN: Yeah – it’s definitely some sort of threat. And it’s an authority thing. I don’t know whether there’s a jealousy too, of ‘how come I can’t play the part’ but it does feel as if there’s some resistance to female authority, or giving over power to a woman. And it’s okay when we play the right roles in Shakespeare, for example, but when you’d have a female Richard III or a female Hamlet… It’s interesting as well, I didn’t get to see the Maxine Peake one but what I understood is that they played the role still as a boy.
RM: Yes – as I understand, they didn’t change the pronouns for Hamlet as a character.
PN: I’m sure that she would have been amazing, but part of me was like “Oh that’s…” Maybe it doesn’t matter if you don’t notice language so much, but you can’t help doing it when you listen or you watch something. It’s like doing Ariel – and I know actresses have played Ariel in the past – but there’s one tiny bit where it’s written “Ariel in all his quality” and I just changed that to “her” – didn’t even ask Dominic – and there’s another bit where I say, “Each one tripping on his toe”, I changed that line to “her toe” because we have some female nymphs, that are reflections of me – because if we’re going to do this let’s go the whole hog. It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t change the pattern or the rhythm of the text.
RM: You’ve also anticipated something that I was going to ask you, which was why do certain roles get earmarked when we are going to gender-flip a character? Hamlet has a really long tradition of being played by women and is in some ways maybe a less interesting choice than making the Bastard female.
PN: I look at the canon of Shakespeare now and go “well, let’s play this part, and let’s play that part now.” Hamlet, and Hal – I could play them just as me. I think the great thing about Shakespeare is that he just asks for the spirit, for the soul of the actor. In some ways it doesn’t matter whether they’re male or female, he asks for all of you. And I think if you can bring all of you to any of those parts you can make it work.
RM: So which ones are on your wish list now?
PN: Well, Hamlet – I think that part does have everything, and again it asks everything of you. From the Histories, I’d love to play Hal, or even Richard III. They all call for huge amounts of strength and huge amounts of vulnerability, but I love the call to arms in having to battle and fight. Or Maccers. You think, “oh, I’d love to play Lady Macbeth”, but how flipping cool would it be to play Macbeth? And to play Macbeth with a Lady Macbeth, and to make that a gay relationship. Or Romeo. I’d love to play Romeo. There are so many more mouthwatering parts – that are the male parts – that I think women would smash. And are smashing. Bring a new take to the plays and really, really challenge so many people in our industry that need challenging. Because we are as good as the guys. And work, sometimes, harder.
RM: This is absolutely the message I’m getting whenever I talk to female actors about what roles they would play if they weren’t circumscribed by the industry insisting you play certain things. There’s such a mouthwatering hunger, to go out there and say that we can play these roles, because women experience the same scope of emotions as men.
PN: Harriet Walter said something really interesting – “Imagine you are trained and capable of playing Beethoven’s piano concertos but you are forbidden to perform them because you are a woman.” And I just thought that’s great. It is like a lot of us – we have the emotional access and the technique and the muscle and the guts for it but we’re not being given the chance to do it.
RM: Let’s talk a little bit about Rosalind then – which was my favourite As You Like It that I’ve seen – and she is performing a gender that’s not her own.
PN: I don’t think I could have played Rosalind the way that I did unless I had played the Bastard. Somehow playing the Bastard – it shoved me forwards as an actor. It broke through things in me, and I can’t quite describe why. Maybe because it felt like it was a big risk, and that it could really fall flat on its face. And then it worked really well and was incredibly exhilarating. And I think as a woman in Shakespeare, particularly, you don’t get much chance to speak directly to the audience, and in that part you do. It’s amazing. And I began to love it. I think she is just this spirit, and that Shakespeare again asks for the whole of the actor or actress to give himself over to her.
RM: You were, it has to be said, one of the most convincingly male Ganymede/Rosalind’s I have ever seen – what was the process of finding that like?
PN: It was interesting – I can’t bear watching a Shakespeare play where the girl ties her hair back, gets in some breeches and it just feels really panto. And I thought my identity as a woman, a little bit, is in my hair, so I was like okay, I need to cut it off. Because I thought if it makes me feel vulnerable, let’s do it! This will then be getting closer to the sense of what it might cost Rosalind. And then I was like, what happens if I strap my boobs down, and what happens if I – and we had this pair of pants with this fake prosthetic cock on them that we’d had from a previous show we did, and Maria mentioned it, and I was like “get it, get it!”. And I put that on and part of me was like, “this is weird, because now my centre is in a different place” but it felt quite liberating. And I worked with a movement director, saying “How do men take space differently from women?” and then getting rid of my hair was, again, really liberating because I felt “I don’t care what I look like. I don’t care. But how can I convincingly find the boy within me?”
And then that just opened up the text. I felt I could play with the language and I honestly can tell you that that’s the freest I’ve ever felt onstage.
RM: There’s a connection between that freedom with the language and playing the male part, stripping away conventions of femininity that we don’t realise we’re doing.
PN: Exactly. I’d say that I’m probably someone that doesn’t care that much anyway, but yet we do want to be sexy and attractive, and the irony is that when you do strip that away, you become the most sexy, attractive person – everyone’s like “I’d love to have that freedom.”
RM: You start to see why so much of men’s attractiveness is not based around their appearance.
PN: Not at all.
RM: So much of that came out of your long-standing collaboration with Maria Aberg. Do you think that you’d have had that with a male director?
PN: That’s interesting. Very interesting. I think it depends on who the director is. There’s male directors I’ve worked with who are fantastically collaborative, and others that are incredibly controlling and prescriptive. So you know what, if – and this is a bit of a weird hypothetical – if, knowing what I know now, a male director had asked me to play Rosalind, I would have said no. Because it wouldn’t be the way in which I’d like to play it. With Maria, there was this unspoken language, and we were just always on the same page.
RM: It’s always a heart-in-mouth moment as a director when you’re very attached to an idea of what role a character’s going to play within the whole. You meet up with your actor beforehand and you’re crossing your fingers under the table that they’re going to see it your way. But if they don’t you have to hand it over.
PN: Yeah, It’s a tough one. Ultimately I think everyone wants to be able to collaborate. Both the actor with the director and the director with the actor. And I think I’ve had it a couple of times when you’re on completely different pages. But thankfully with the Bastard and with Rosalind – I really think I’ve done my best work with Maria, for those reasons.
RM: Fantastic. Let’s finish with The Tempest, since that’s what you’re doing right now. So, how do you play an ethereal spirit?
PN: Yeah, so that’s hard. I think someone else has said this: that Ariel is a blank canvas, he can be played in any which way. Probably my instinctive idea of who Ariel is was different from Dominic [Dromgoole]’s. But Dominic’s I’ve grown to love. We’ve worked together to create something that is very specific and has a mixture of humanity and something otherworld-like. You can’t be “I’m a fairy” and go “I choose to play it ethereally” – I think that quality has to form itself out of a truthful place. So what we began with was that Prospero describes Ariel as “delicate” – “my delicate spirit, my delicate Ariel” – and then you look at the trauma of being trapped in the tree for twelve years by Sycorax, and how painful and hideous that must have been. And the fact that I’ve probably not seen that many human beings or encountered many other creatures apart from maybe other nymphs I meet. So the way in which we’ve approached this is that there’s this really delicate quality and major curiosity – with everyone I encounter it’s like learning the language of what it is to become a human. And over the course of the play, that’s what she does.
The Tempest is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until April 22nd – more information here.