¶ Plays about the life and times of Henry V, affectionately referred to as Hal (Nikolas Hoback), were big business in 1580s and ’90s England. There were multiple versions, some treating him as a hero and others as a villain who comes to be reformed, before William Shakespeare came on the scene. The History play genre was a new thing, brought to great success by an earlier company called the Queen’s Men. (Check out their plays, here.) I am convinced by Jim Marino’s argument that “The First Part of Henry IV with the life and death of Henry sir-named Hotspurre” was a revision, rethought by Shakespeare as part of a tetralogy, what some call the “Henriad” after Homer’s Iliad, rather than a stand-alone piece.
¶ Similar to thinking about Shakespeare as an expert reviser, watching an “original practice” or First Folio performance take on any of the plays challenges your assumptions about what is and isn’t there. I discussed in a previous post the useful and necessary fiction that are critical editions of plays: they pull together all the extant versions of a play with a name like “King Lear” into one place. This isn’t really a different act than Shakespeare’s revising an old play new again, except that critical editing isn’t interested in (and typically doesn’t retain) performative coherence. And it’s not objective either: critical editing creates its own myths about what we want a play to mean at a particular point in time. Watching an O.P. production, a performance that picks one version of Shakespeare’s text and sticks with it, illuminates just what those myths are.
¶ So what happened in this performance, where the actors trust their text?
¶ The Original Practice Shakespeare Festival performance of “The Comedie of Errors” was an all-female cast. I wrote a few weeks ago, in response to a Globe and Mail article, about the importance of gender parity in Shakespeare-oriented companies. I have also discussed in two recent WIL Fest posts (here and here) about the ways in which women playing male roles as either male or female characters is in keeping with the spirit of repertory system as well as the gender theory of the period from whence they come. One might say, an all-female cast is as accurate as the all-male casts of the Renaissance.
¶ A benefit of working in repertory is that the plays placed side-by-side can speak to each other. Put in close proximity, they can suggest themes and ideas that might be otherwise subsumed by other aspects of the plays. An all-female “Errors” is a smart move to follow “The Taming of the Shrew”: it gave actual women agency to make performance choices within their peer group immediately after a play nearly impossible to find female empowerment. While actors routinely play against a character’s assigned gender, here nearly half of this cast chose to play their role as men, including Kelsea Ashenbrenner (as the officer), Isabella Buckner, Amy Driesler, Lissie Lewis, Sullivan Mackintosh, and Shandi Muff. What this implies to me is that cross-gender casting and cross-gender performances have become commonplace for the company: it is simply part of the system in which they work. What did it do for William Shakespeare’s shortest play?