It’s well-known that Shakespeare didn’t write enough substantial female parts, which leaves the current drive for gender equality in casting at something of an impasse. Smooth Faced Gentlemen have a solution: all-female Shakespeare. They’re by no means the first to take this stance on casting the canon, but their success in recent years demands to be paid attention to, and to be taken seriously. Can gender blind casting be applied to Shakespeare in the same way that companies like the RSC operate a race blind casting policy? Does an all-female cast alter the dynamic between characters, shedding new light on their relationships? And what, besides more employment opportunities for female actors, is gained in the exchange?
Renowned as Shakespeare’s bloodiest play (last year’s production at the Globe reportedly had people fainting in the Yard), the execution of revenge in Titus Andronicus is writ large in violent acts upon the body, most notably in the savage rape and mutilation of Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Instead of hidden blood packs or stylised silks, Smooth Faced Gentlemen opt to paint Rome red: brandishing paintbrushes as swords, they stab and slice their way through the play, finding a graceful medium between stage blood gore and abstract representation. The warring factions of Romans and Goths are distilled into mods and rockers: slick Teddy Boy black and whites and brogues meet leather-jacketed hell-raising bikers. Visually striking as they are, these costumes present a curiously androgynous world, a neuter power vacuum which worked in the Gents favour when they last brought their now highly acclaimed production to Edinburgh in 2013.
Back then they were at Bedlam, a theatre whose vaulted church roof and large playing space were a perfect match for the ritualistic political angling of the play’s opening, and the ritualistic slaughter that follows. This year they’re at the Pleasance, chasing their moniker, ‘that smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity’. But not only does the King Dome lack much of the stage facilities of Bedlam (no trapdoor, no gallery), the production feels cramped here, the set shoe-horned in, the actors’ rich, well-trained voices ricocheting round the walls like stray bullets.
There’s also been some subsitutions to the original cast, leaving the ensemble noticably weaker as a unit. Henri Merriam still commands attention and inspires awe as Titus, and Ashley Kaye’s disabled Marcus still works well as an outsider, a venerable statesman in the brutalistic masculine world of martial Rome, but Anita-Joy Uwejah’s Aaron is a stilted comedian, adopting a Jamaican accent for the duration which bulldozes its way through her lines. Terri Redin as Saturninus does the exact opposite, to equally damaging effect: masking her native Liverpudlian with forced RP except when playing the Nurse. It seems that, even in a production that prides itself on resisting convention, the stranglehold of ‘how Shakespeare should be played’ persists; Northern accents for lower status characters, RP for the rulers. The one irridescent exception to this is Emily Bairstow’s Tamora, her West Yorkshire burr reverberating through the Goth Queen’s speeches.
It’s a shame that the production’s branding as ‘an all-female production’ is ultimately just that: women playing male roles rather then playing them as women, in their voices, and with all the power those voices can bring to bear on these roles.