“The king is dead. Long live the queen!”
A striking opening statement from The King is Dead, part of the Mermaids’ Shakespeare Festival commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This particular contribution saw the central royals in Shakespeare’s Henriad tetralogy cast as women, with all other characters being played by men, in order to examine the nature of gender and power. Gender-bent Shakespeare is not a new concept, but it’s one that I’m only in favour of if there is a deliberate comment in going against tradition; otherwise, why alter the casting of texts already rich with meaning? With the help of the (lengthy) programme, I could see what director Natasha Waddell aimed to say. However, the The King is Dead needed more polish to fully realise and convey the intended comments on power and gender relations.
In a play so focused on its women kings, there was an element of pressure on the five ladies to deliver in bringing to life notions of power and gender within Shakespeare. And indeed, they each had a distinct interpretation of their respective roles as princes and kings that went beyond their differing costumes. However, the quality of performances varied between the women, and, indeed, the men of the play, which at times clouded the messages and gender commentary in each extract.
The cast were all extremely commanding in the silent movement scenes which peppered the production, set to regal, even chilling, music and creating a coherency between the play extracts. It was only in the extracts from the tetralogy that the acting let down the production. Phoebe Jones and Catherine Potter, portraying Hal were the two princes of the production – kings-to-be still finding their feet and trying to escape the likes of Will Innes’s well-acted Falstaff. But there is a fine line between playing an uncertain character, and coming across as an uncertain actor – one which both Jones and Potter blurred. Their performances showed potential for excellence, and Potter seemed to have a good grasp of the struggle of Henry in the face of his dying father, but, at times, both came off contrived, as did several of the male actors in the production.
More complete performances came from the women playing the kings. Rosie Beech was an unsettled, almost ethereal Richard II being deposed by a stalwart and determined Alasdair Gillies as Bolingbroke in the first extract. But apart from Richard’s outbursts, the scene overall was a little too quiet for me – as was most of the production. This was an issue which carried on into Susannah McClanahan’s scene, although I found her performance to be the most complete and grounded in the production overall. There was a maturity to her performance – a subtlety and understanding which was lacking in the other performances. McClanahan’s slighted king had a gravitas that engagingly conveyed the struggles a female ruler might have in commanding respect from male-dominated royal courts.
This exploration of the difficulties faced by a female ruler continued into the final extract from Henry V, led by Erin Bushe as the titular king. In her unveiling of the betrayals planned by her courtiers, I saw the spark of an intelligent, cunning woman who has to work twice as hard as a male counterpart to keep control of her court, but I would have liked more finesse in Bushe’s performance. She commanded attention, but a more varied range in volume, tone, and intonation, and more confidence when standing still would have added depth to her performance.
The production left me thinking on the idea of potential. The potential of the actors, who I’d like to see more from; the potential to update and reinterpret Shakespeare’s works; and on a wider scale, the potential that women have and are denied from fulfilling when they are prevented from the same opportunities as men. The choice to keep the rest of the cast male carried the message throughout each scene about how women so often have to rely on male figures for protection and to find respect from other men who will not respect women in their own right, even if they hold the power of war-wagers and nation-rulers, princes and kings. It also showed that the depth and nuance given to male characters can be extended to women (something even modern writers struggle to do) and that the issues facing the princes and kings can be universal, even if the setting and the language of the plays are remote. The creativity behind The King is Dead and its interpretations of Shakespeare’s Henriad proves why we still perform and find relevance in Shakespeare’s plays today.