A few years ago, I went to see a production of Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman in the Gaiety theatre. At that point in time, my experience of theatre was limited, and I can’t say for certain I even knew who McDonagh was. For anyone familiar with the content of the play, I’m sure you can understand how taken aback I was when exposed to the gory violence, dark prose and swearing. I adored it! During the interval, a disturbed and flustered man anxiously pushed past us in our row of seats, declaring that he couldn’t handle the second act because the violence was too disturbing. I was deeply intrigued by how profound an impact this performance had, and so naturally, when I heard a production of The Pillowman was going to be put on in Dramsoc, I was determined to get a role. That being said, as I was flicking through the audition pieces, something immediately stood out to me; all of the main roles were male. Determined still to act in what I would now regard as my favourite play, I decided to take a leap of faith and audition for a male role regardless. Thankfully, I was given the part, but the experience of having to audition ‘as male’ or ‘in place of a man’ made me consider the limitations women have in the world of theatre, not just in terms of acting, but also in terms of production and writing.
A recent study published in The New York Times stated that although over 60% of theatre audience members are female, only a shocking 20% of produced plays are written by women. It comes as no surprise that women struggle to find leading roles in plays when their representation is still largely determined by men. This, however, is a multi-faceted issue. Aside from the limitations of female roles, women in theatre are faced with issues such as misrepresentation, sexist architypes and ageism on stage. Consider, for example, how female roles have been represented historically. Many of Shakespeare’s famous plays set out with the intention of ‘taming’ their female characters, as women who speak their mind or step out outside of gender norms are depicted as insane or brutish. In the case of Hamlet, many people would be familiar with the famous line ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ which proceeds the heartbreak and downfall of the main female role, Ophelia. Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew is another famous example of the subordination of women on stage, as it makes light of domestic abuse and torture, with an incredibly dissatisfying conclusion. The female lead, Katherine, goes through stages of ‘taming’ instigated by her suitor Petrucio, who starves her and denies her of sleep. He manipulates her into saying that the sun is the moon, disorienting her sense of reality and ‘taming’ her character to the point where she is remodelled into the ideal subservient woman. It is difficult to imagine how an audience is expected to find this process funny and directs our attention to a more complex issue with female representation in theatre; even when female bodies are presented on stage, they are frequently coloured and tainted to suit patriarchal ideals.
One may argue that we have long since moved away from Shakespearean representations of female leads, and this is true, to an extent. Even in the casting of modern renditions of Shakespearean works, gender bending roles and alterations to the script are not uncommon. But is the process of slotting women into typically male roles such as Hamlet or Macbeth effective in combatting the issues? Ultimately women are merely enacting maleness rather than expressing a version of femininity that isn’t fragile.
The increase demand for female representation on stage and insight into the female experience is ever growing in the world of theatre. When I visited the fringe festival in Edinburgh last year, I was amazed by the range of performances addressing issues such as sexual assault, abortion rights, female body image, and toxic relationships. Plays such as Awakening and Even Hotter addressed female issues such as slut shaming, the impact of societal expectations on female body image, and the erasure of female sexuality. Particularly while watching Even Hotter, I was in awe of the bravery demonstrated on stage by the two female actors, who at one stage during their performance, enacted a physical movement piece depicting masturbation. Although these performances were deeply profound unveilings of femininity and womanhood, it still made me question women’s place in theatre, even today, and whether it is somewhat pigeon-holed.
What theatre and performance art needs are the space for women to perform, engage, write and direct for and in roles of all genres and subject matters. We need to move away from the idea that women only serve a purpose in theatre to retell a distinctly female experience, or to serve as a love interest for male narratives. Where are the female detectives in theatre? The female war heroes? The female spies or the female astronauts? We have been limited by male driven narratives long enough, and it is time to rewrite our place on stage as we want it to be.
Caoilfhionn Murphy Ní Mhaolchalain – Features Writer