8 March 2018

International Women’s Day. Sometimes it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come. 

When this beautiful theatre was built one hundred and ten years ago, no woman in Britain had the right to vote. One hundred years ago the first women got the vote, but only propertied women over the age of thirty. It was another ten years until all women got the right to vote.

My mother, a gifted linguist who worked at Bletchley Park during the war, studied at Trinity College Dublin eighty years ago: women were not allowed in the college library after dark. I went to Cambridge forty years ago: my relatively progressive college, King’s had only been admitting women for five years out of its five centuries of history, working women were routinely refused mortgages unless they could secure the signature of a male guarantor, and the National Theatre was still a year away from letting the first woman direct a play.  

Here in our little world of Watford Palace Theatre, these seem like messages from the dark ages.  Our Board is fifty per cent female and has a female Chair and Vice Chair, and indeed a female Artistic Director/Chief Executive. Our audiences are equally used to seeing work by female and male authors, directors, designers and technicians, from diverse backgrounds. Sadly this is still pretty rare.

When people are marginalised, it can so often be unconscious. As a young Assistant Director at the RSC in the early 80s, I observed how the structure of Shakespeare’s plays contributed to this; he only had boys to play the female parts, so they had fewer scenes and fewer lines than the male parts played by the experienced actors. So the female actors in the RSC had their voices heard less often, quite literally.  Whoever speaks most in a play, by definition has the most choices to make about how to interpret the role, and it is those choices that make up a production.

Shakespeare wrote for all-male companies, and the plays can look a little differently played by all-female ones. The sexual ambiguities are different but equal, and sometimes the moments when the men mistreat the women – a common theme in Shakespeare, who almost always seems to take the woman’s part - have an intriguing new perspective to them. And it’s fun!

I’ve always loved MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and am enjoying preparing our October, all-female production. It’s set in 1940, in a kind of tribute to my mother and the women of her generation, whose lives were paradoxically liberated by the range of work they were called to do when the men were away at war.  It is also a homage to a pioneering female lighting designer called Nancy Hewins. For years I thought our regular collaborator at the Palace, Jenny Cane, was the UK’s first female professional lighting designer. But, as so often with women’s history, there was someone before, who’d been forgotten.

Nancy set up the UK’s first female touring theatre company, performing in theatres, school halls and village greens up and down the country, from the 1920s right through the war and up to the 1960s. They travelled in a Rolls Royce (because it was reliable), and made and fitted up their own sets and costumes. They were experts at quick-changes, with a cast of only seven, and liked to use facial hair when playing the men.  Apparently their beards were good enough to fool the miners in the Rhondda valley! We will dedicate our new production to them.