Written for our work on Romeo & Juliet, shared July 2017.
If you found yourself in an High School classroom this year, you may have heard a much repeated exchange: referring to one student or another as ‘he’ or ‘she’, the student might wittily respond: ‘Are you assuming my gender?’ It is a good joke, one which, whilst worn down (mostly by teachers,) still brings a tired smile to the lips of classmates and colleagues alike. It is quick and disarming, in large part because it is poignant. I am fortunate to be able to say that I work in a school where gender is represented in proud and diverse ways. If you glance through the window of a classroom at lunchtime you will often find a group of girls lining up to have their hair braided by their male classmate, and when a parent came to the school on an inset day it was to pick up not her son’s expensive speaker but his heels.
When it comes to Shakespeare, it is no secret that compared to the hundreds of roles written for men, those for women are few and far between. We can, of course, forgive the Bard for this imbalance, writing, as he was, at a time when women could not pace the boards and the country was still in a solid state of patriarchy. (Not to mention the many excellent roles he did write for women under these conditions.) But in our contemporary world we have a responsibility to not just redress the balance between male and female, but to acknowledge the diversity of gender.
To blindly diversify roles for the purpose of political correctness would be a somewhat useless act of tokenism. But this group of young actors brings with it its own broad spectrum, out of which we can change and complicate roles in a way that serves both the play and the students. For example, when faced with a group of powerful, wilful young women, a matriarchal Capulet household creates itself.
I think we made the right decision in not producing ‘Romeo & Jeff’, but even with our minor gender-bending we have learned that Shakespeare is universal and unending and absolutely up to the challenges of today.
And so it is my pleasure to welcome you to 21st Century Albion, where we lay our scene…