Unsex Me Here (OXBARDFEST 2012)

Tue 29th May 2012

reviews

Rachel Hutchings

at 21:49 on 29th May 2012

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‘Unsex Me Here’ was a one-off presentation of the monologues of the female characters in Shakespeare, contextualised in the scenario of a director, herself attempting to put on a production of the monologues. Staged in the Norrington Room of Blackwell's book shop, the performance was part of the OxBard Fest and with its originality, wit and imagination, provided an excellent, if short, distraction, and a welcome contrast to the traditional staging of the Bard’s plays, which are constituting the majority of the festival.

Entering the room, I was unsure of what to expect, thinking that what I was about to witness was a compilation of actors reading monologues, without any context or connection between the various speeches. However, being faced with a woman wearing a Blackwells badge cleaning the bookshelf in front, the audience were presented with an insightful and honest portrayal of Shakespearean characters, with some excellent acting from each of the cast members and noticeable differences between the speeches when the fictional director asked for the words to be read as a witch, a lecturer, a housewife, with controlled anger and amusedly ‘drag queen sexy,’ the latter being part of the attempt to present a woman playing a woman being played by a man… Not only this, but ‘Unsex Me Here’ was a witty exploration into the role of women in modern society, particularly the relationships between women, and also gave a completely believable presentation of the world of ‘backstage’ with frequent references to bickering actresses, diva-like behaviour and obscure theatrical techniques.

Faced with a stream of monologues of Shakespearean females, the play had the potential to become excessively and unsubtly feminist; the all female cast prompted concerns for this, but any references were subtle and therefore thought-provoking and powerful. Including different interpretations of the role that Shakespeare gave his women, whether even the powerful women were truly powerful, Cleopatra or Emilia providing good discussion points, or even why Shakespeare never wrote about a tragic heroine or how the speeches would have been different if Shakespeare had been a woman, were all thoroughly interesting questions that I left the Norrington Room pondering. The play encapsulated critical and analytical deconstructions of Shakespearean works, how to present the women, as well as references to attempts to ‘redo’ Shakespeare in modern days, the suggestion that there had been a version in which the characters were ‘acrobats, suspended from silk ropes over an aquarium’ causing giggles from many an audience member reflecting on whatever really weird Shakespeare interpretation they had recently seen, the director desperately trying to make their production memorable. Writer and director Mary Flanigan should be commended for managing to convey such a breadth of literary issues in such a short space of time, with refined dialogue and inter-textual references, which included Virginia Woolf, poetry and actor interviews. When the monologues were spoken, they were conveyed with conviction and emotion, with Helen Luckhurst and Rafaella Marcus providing excellent contrasts when speaking as Juliet, Rosalind, Emilia or Cleopatra. Dionne Farrell as the cynical critic also delivered earnest speeches and provided the springboard for much of the literary controversies that Shakespeare has provoked, while Jessica Norman as the director was just the right amount of cutting, edging on malicious to give the stereotypical indifference of her character depth and a great platform for chemistry with the other characters, her relationship with her assistant director (Lockhurst) in particular providing an amusing insight into the private sparks of a back stage crew. This relationship facilitated a context for the monologues, demonstrating that many of the issues of women during the time of Shakespeare are just as relevant today, the claim that ‘there is no sisterhood in Shakespeare’ being followed by a comical catfight between these two thespians. If I have any criticism of the play it was some minor line stumbling, and a tendency to focus too much on the determination to deliver the monologues honestly at the expense of some of the other dialogue, but this was minor compared to the overwhelming achievement of such a unique and imaginative literary and theatrical exploration into Shakespeare’s presentation of women.

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Hyunwoo June Choo

at 15:51 on 30th May 2012

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Do you know your Shakespeare monologues? Better yet, those by women? This is probably the place where your A-levels in Shakespeare would pay off: Mary Flanigan’s ‘Unsex Me Here’ presents a holistic re-visioning of women and Shakespeare through seamless threading of cherry-picked, highly meaningful monologues.

The show can best be described as an intellectual discussion in guise of a rehearsal, whereby four females ruminate on various themes revolving around Shakespeare and women. A director (Jessica Norman), Assistant Director (Helen Luckhurst), and the actress (Rafaella Marcus) enter the scene with a desire to rehearse in the Norrington Room, but this later transpires to a dialogue, and sometimes lighthearted bickering, with necessary challenges added by the critic in the form of a Blackwell’s shelver (Dionne Farrell). The format is much like that of a closed fishbowl conversation (or play within a play), which, being a tribute to Shakespeare’s birthday, is a clever construction. Monologues break the microcosmic fishbowl to include, engage the audience, and since Flanigan has crafted this piece to make the monologues an illustration of the point at hand, they become devices to draw the audiences into constantly wonder about they fit into the large thematic messages.

Given how many topics were covered, it’s pretty difficult to think that the production only lasted an hour. The play opened with a reflection of how the male-played female roles were portrayed and perceived during Shakespeare’s time: such pondering gave way to experimental reciting with changing inflections, that of a lecturer, witch, or, my personal favorite--“Stepford wives gone mad.” Then the discussion swerved to analyze the role of women in Shakespeare’s plays, bringing to light Shakespeare’s accused misogyny associated with his characterization of Kate in the Taming of the Shrew. Why does he make her a woman of few words, and furthermore, how much more important do her monologues become?

Flanigan is clever in her ways of lacing the monologue to the context of the rehearsal itself—a falling out between the director and assistant director is quickly averted with a reference to Ophelia, among other abundant references to Shakespeare’s female characters. Luckhurst also covers future renditions by Shakespeare’s posterity, including the added role of Lady Macduff and the potential influence of her keen wisdom.

To retreat back to Shakespeare’s perspective, excerpts from Virgina Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” are narrated to discuss Shakespeare’s fictional sister, shifting the gear to a hypothetical one, implicitly addressing the sexist injustice while seeking explanations for Shakespeare’s literary choices. The rehearsal aptly concludes with powerful monologues of Cleopatra and Portia, which like the rest of the deliveries, were executed with much conviction and determined confidence. Marcus deserves particular praise for her theatrical energy, though all the cast members exuded powerful presence unhindered by their soft voices.

While the venue selection theoretically couldn’t be better (Norrington being the bibliophilic haven), the seating arrangements did make it easy to either strain my neck or stare at the daisies pinned to the head of the person sitting in the row before mine. Regardless, this production is so well arranged and thought-provoking that visual obstruction doesn’t affect the overall impression of the evening. I’m still amazed at how the different puzzle pieces fit together, and in such a short time! My only regret is my illiteracy in Shakespeare, perhaps with brief revision I may have appreciated more of Flanigan’s subtle wit.

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Comments

Xandra Burns; 31st May 2012; 08:21:49

My favorite piece of student new writing yet - one of those scripts that makes you want to own a copy and reread again and again - if only it were published!

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