The day following National Day of Patriotic Devotion, the cast and crew of Seattle Shakespeare and upstart crow collective's joint production Bring Down the House had a decision to make. They could demonstrate along with the roughly 175,000 people marching in support of women's rights in Seattle or they could rehearse for their all-female production of William Shakespeare's Henry VI plays.
After a company discussion, director Rosa Joshi, who distilled Shakespeare's historical trilogy into a two-part adaptation along with Kate Wisniewski, says everyone decided to double down on the political action they were already participating in. "We're about to launch a two-month women's march with our production," she told the crew. "So we need to be in this room right now doing this work."
In addition to her interest in exploring sexism in the domestic, political, and theatrical spheres, Joshi mentions The West Wing, House of Cards, and Game of Thrones when she talks about inspirations for her take on Shakespeare's take on the War of the Roses. She loves the backroom power struggle of his history plays in general, and says she shaped this version of Henry VI in particular to highlight the era's "massive civil war that is fought for personal and political gain," which resonates with, you know, the massive civil war being fought for personal and political gain now running on our national stage through January 2020.
Before a rehearsal last week, I asked Joshi to expand on that idea.
You say you had to condense 10 to 12 hours of material. How did you decide what to keep or cut?
Ironically, we had to cut Joan of Arc, a central female character in Part 1. We took out the war in France. We decided to focus on the feud between the Yorks, who had the white rose, and the Lancasters, who had the red rose, because I'm really interested in power in politics. The deep factionalization in the play reminds of me of the deep factionalization in society. "I'm With Her," "Make America Great Again."
Are you calling for moderation?
No, but I do think that the history plays are cautionary tales for our times.
What was the impetus for the all-female cast?
There are so many women who have incredible classical chops in this town who don't get an opportunity to really dig in and to work with each other. Men get to work with each other all the time!
I'm also interested in giving opportunities to women in a field that lacks them. What happens to women in Shakespeare particularly is that you reach a certain age and there are only a few roles left. If you're a male, you can go from Romeo to Orlando to Hal or Hamlet, and all the way to King Lear. For women, you get to Cleopatra, you get to Margaret in the Richard III plays, and then the roles dry up.
Does the casting make the production subversive?
It's subversive for me to take a history play, which is a showcase for a whole lot of men to be onstage, and fill it with women. I won't deny that. There is some great delight that I take in giving that space and power to women. The fact that they get to talk about politics and power, and participate in scenes that pass the Bechdel test—
But they're men.
They're playing male characters, yes. I think the very maleness of the world being inhabited by women is a political act. This is a sexist world. Having women take this on brings to light this sexism in a whole different way. It highlights gender. When there's a whole stage of women, and someone calls someone out for being a woman, you really hear how women are being described, or what the role of a woman is.
If these plays required such rigorous adaptation, isn't there an argument that Shakespeare has been thoroughly covered? Like, why do Henry VI instead of a new work by a woman of color?
I think people of color are often told from an early age: "You can't do Shakespeare. It's not for you." I outright reject that. I find this is really important for people of color: If they don't see themselves onstage, they don't imagine themselves onstage. It's important to me that people of color know these stories can speak to them, are about them, are for them. I never questioned that for some reason growing up. I always felt that Shakespeare could speak to me.
Also, my education is Western. Shakespeare was a large part of the art that I grew up with. It can be easy to think these plays don't speak to a diverse community, but they do if we own them. If Shakespeare really is universal, let's challenge that. Let's see which faces, which bodies can tell those stories.