Play in Performance
As You Like It is known for its extraordinary female lead, Rosalind. (Unfortunately) her unusual status as a female lead who does not conform to gender stereotyping is almost as unusual and provocative now as it was in 1599. Footfall have re-organised the text in order to push and explore the possible statements that Shakespeare’s work made about gender and sexual agency. Shakespeare was writing at a time when costume and dress were seen to signify sex, not just gender. When boys dressed up as girls, they were accepted as being female to a greater degree than they would be today. Thus on an Elizabethan stage, the young male actor playing Rosalind, who then dresses up as the youth Ganymede, was simultaneously man and woman. Lines like ‘if I were a woman’ and ‘I thank God I am not a woman’ are charged with possibility- is the speaker male or female in that moment? It seems that Shakespeare left this question unanswered and ambiguous: this is political because it defies social pressure to sort people into one or the other. Although our society is becoming increasingly aware of the fluid possibilities of sex and gender, there are still entrenched ideas and expectations of how these genders perform themselves. Androgyny is an idea with which we are all familiar, but Arden Creatures wants to explore how this idea can play itself out, how far we can push our own and our audience’s ability to see Rosalind and Ganymede as man and woman at the same time; to release the character, and our view of them, from the confines of their gender.
Text and Silence
Of course, this play is about more than one female actor exploring her ‘maleness’. Rosalind, dressed as Ganymede, controls a huge amount of the play’s text both as speaker and engineer, and this is exciting not least because it gives females an almost unprecedented proportion of the verbal and physical ownership of the space; it is also groundbreaking – and remains so even today – because of the impact her maleness has on Orlando, her lover. Taking on the guise of the male, Rosalind is given the licence to speak and be heard that men are trained to expect and possess both on stage and in everyday life, and she prevents Orlando from having very much to say at all. In fact, Orlando is treated in the same way that so many of the female characters of Shakespeare’s plays are treated, including that of Celia in As You Like It: they are forced to spend a lot of time on stage in silence. Orlando becomes a listener – something which few of Shakespeare’s male characters do to such a degree, but with which a female actor playing Cordelia, Sylvia, Hermia, Hero, Juliet or Desdemona will be all too familiar. So many early modern plays have their female voices diminish as the plot develops, and Shakespeare experiments widely with female silence in what we now know as the fifth act. The act of listening, by character and actor, is gender political. It is an “emasculating” act for Orlando, because it is so unprecedented, and is still a rarity in modern playwriting; Orlando’s engaging with the ‘femaleness’ of listening so willingly should make him far more interesting than he is often played to be. Just as female characters who listen shouldn’t be reduced to archetypes with simplistic thoughts and motivations, Arden Creatures does not simplify Orlando as it explores his relationship with ‘female’ behaviours.
Setting and Movement Work
We have chosen the title ‘Arden Creatures’, because it is in the Forest of Arden that the characters of ‘As You Like It’, away from the constrictions of the court, have the licence to push the bounds of their freedom. In Shakespeare’s text, and in our version of it, they discover how far it is possible to escape the limits that the socialised behaviours of the court have imposed upon them. For us, the hotel setting is important because it reflects the forest as a liminal space, somewhere through which people pass, where their identities can be unfixed and changeable because they are unknown and separated from their ordinary lives. We have retained the sense of the forest in both the design and the movement work of the show. Our movement draws inspiration from the behaviours of birds – specifically cockerels and swans. In various cultures these two animals represent certain masculine and feminine domains; for example, in a cock-fight, and in ballet. We want to explore how different animal qualities, such as aggression or elegance, are implicitly gendered. We explore the idea that there is a close link between our socialised expectations of male and female behaviour (nurture), and our biology (nature). People often use the ‘animal’ to suggest our more ‘free’ selves, but in fact even the phrase ‘animal instincts’ should show us that animal behaviours, whether that is in ‘fight or flight’, or in the strict mating rituals of different animals, are programmed and restrictive. It is as humans, not as animals, that we have the potential to break free both of any biological programming we have, and of the social ideas about how we should behave – whether that is verbally, physically, or emotionally. This sense of the possibilities of gender, and even of sex, is what we hope to leave you with. Enjoy the show!