Much ado about women: Modern-day reading or distortion?

There are plenty of strong female characters to be found in the classics. But directors beware – there’s a fine line between a modern-day reading and distortion, argues Adrian Hamilton
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The Independent Culture

Women Beware Women is the title of one of the National Theatre's recent offerings.

Perhaps it should apply to the directors and performers as much as the audience. For this production of Thomas Middleton's work – good although it was – brought out the question of how today's women of the theatre want to present themselves, particularly in the classics. Are they their own masters, with appetites and ambition the equal of men, which is how the playwrights saw them? Or are they to be presented as the innocent victims of men's appalling patriarchy in the past, which is how you might see them reading the plays? We've had both on display in startling new interpretations of Jacobean plays – Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at the Almeida and Women Beware Women at the Olivier, and they have faced in different directions.

Jacobean drama is particularly difficult for actresses, of course. Overall there is no doubting that the playwrights of the era were profoundly chauvinistic, if not actually misogynistic. Man was on the top, women were bereft of rights. There is no argument on this score, even if directors have tried to disguise or update the fact with excisions or deliberate twisting of the text.

And yet it is possible to give a "feminist" interpretation of even the most chauvinist of texts. Greg Doran's production of The Taming of the Shrew in 2003 was a true revelation. Far from softening the script, as so many another modern production, including by the RSC, had, Alexandra Gilbreath as Kate simply turned it on its head. Wilful and independent, she takes one look at Petruchio and just lusts for him. All the appalling – and, for a modern audience, extremely discomforting – stratagems he adopts to tame her are treated as masculine self-indulgences in the spirit of Men Behaving Badly. She wants him, accepts with a resigned tolerance his outrageous behaviour and gives the final speech of docility enthusiastically as her passport to get his britches off and into bed. You almost feel sorry for him in the end. It's clearly not what Shakespeare intended or his audience wanted, but it worked magnificently.

If only more recent performances had the same total zest. Instead productions seem caught, as feminism itself still appears to be, between victimhood or equality, in badness as much as goodness.

You see it in this year's classic productions. Anna Maxwell Martin earlier this year gave one of the most riveting Shakespearean performances I've seen as Isabella in Measure for Measure, a difficult and ambiguous play at the best of times. Instead of playing the part as a docile and innocent young virgin as most productions do – and as Shakespeare surely intended, to point up the hypocrisy and malevolence of the acting Duke, Angelo – Maxwell Martin played it as a self-confident woman who knows what she wants (to be a nun) and is incensed that she is being dragged back by obligations to her brother and appeals to a would-be rapist.

It made excruciatingly painful the scene with her brother, who, to Isabella's contempt, begs that she lose her virtue rather than he lose his life. It also made the initial interview with Angelo electric as she responds to his advances not with the usual horror, but with fury. At the end, the Duke's offer of marriage comes not as a resolution but as a final insult. It's an interpretation that demands that the Duke be made totally unsympathetic rather than ambiguous (as Shakespeare, I think, intended), while her final bitterness at being taken in marriage by him is certainly not what the playwright had in mind. But it is convincing and revelatory.

The recent production at the National Theatre of Middleton's Women Beware Women went the other way. In this reading, directed by Marianne Elliott, it was made absolutely and graphically clear that Bianca is a sweet innocent turned into a grasping female by the brutality of the ruler in taking her against her will. Woman here is victim not monstrous. Which is again rather against the grain of the writing – but viable.

What you lose in the process, however, is that Jacobean image of woman being as rapacious and power-hungry as man, of the female being equal to the male of the species in their appetites as their lusts. A good production, with a lot of the energy and cruelty which marks (and, to some, mars) Jacobean tragedy, but it makes the female part far more passive than the drive of the language and action would warrant.

Interestingly the two strongest interpretations of women are in productions directed by men – Doran (The Taming of the Shrew) and Michael Attenborough (Measure for Measure), while the victim view comes from a woman, Elliott.

That may reflect some of the ambivalence of feminism today. Increasingly concerned with the personal, it is more concentrated on relationships than passions. It works for the kind of family-centred and drawing-room plays now being revived (Simon Gray, Noël Coward, Tom Stoppard and Terence Rattigan are all being revived at the moment) but does it work for the Elizabethan and Jacobean works?

The last generation of strong actresses, now mature, have understandably gone for the works with strong female leads. Which may help explain the current popularity of Ibsen, who wrote such good parts for them, as well as the Greek tragedies (and the later versions such as Racine's Phèdre). Who can forget Janet McTeer in Ibsen's A Doll's House in 1997, investing the part of Nora with such a total sexuality that the walls of her house could barely contain her, and finally didn't? It was Ibsen born anew for a contemporary world. So too with Fiona Shaw's Medea, a performance of such complete neuroticism that it simply superseded all previous portrayals of nobility.

What this generation found more difficult – and the recent repertoire has suffered fearfully partly as a result – was comedy, and especially the classics of Sheridan, Goldsmith and Vanbrugh. A director friend complains that it became impossible to cast young women actors in costume parts because they simply couldn't manage the short-stepped walk, so used were they to striding out in trainers.

The deeper reason was that passionate women couldn't bear the confines that comedy necessarily imposes. Fiona Shaw's attempt at the role of Lady Gay Spanker in the National's recent production of London Assurance is a case in point. She has the tricks to produce the laughs in the part, but her efforts to redefine the hard-hunting country lady with whom the metropolitan, effete Sir Harcourt Courtly (Simon Russell Beale) falls in love as a mannish equestrian simply gets it wrong. The whole point about Lady Gay – and anyone who knows the country knows the type – is that she is so womanly, a matron and maternal figure, which is what Sir Courtly falls for her (attraction of the opposites) and why his intended bride, the young and cynical Grace, seeks comfort from her. The dynamic of two such masterly performers as Russell Beale and Shaw works, but the dynamic of the play does not.

The interesting thing about the new wave of actresses is that, precisely because they do come from the so-called (and misnamed) "post feminist" generation and precisely because they are used to acting in TV sitcoms, they should be in a position to tackle anew the classics of both tragedy and comedy. Playing the formalised, and the formulaic, naturalistically is par for the course in sitcoms. So is the self-confident expression of ambition or sexual appetite.

It's been too long since we've seen Sheridan on the stage or Restoration comedy. Too long, too, since we've seen a new approach to the women's parts in the classics. Too much Ibsen and not enough Strindberg – misogynist though he was, he wrote female parts crying out for a fresh go at them, as did Webster, Fletcher, Middleton and that band. Measure for Measure and Women Beware Women, have shown the way. All that's needed now is a bit of confidence and rather less victimhood.

For further reading: 'A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare' edited Dympna Callaghan (Wiley-Blackwell, £25.99). Order for £24.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030