Hamlet, Thy name is woman: Why Michelle Terry’s Globe is staging Post-gender Shakespeare

Michelle Terry has arrived at Shakespeare’s Globe at a tricky time in the institution’s history. The theatre’s new artistic director, its fourth, takes over from Emma Rice, who left the role after only two years following clashes with the theatre’s board.

Terry, an actor with huge amount of experience playing Shakespearean roles on stage – including Henry V – is launching her first season with productions of Hamlet and As You Like It.

Clearly not one to shy away from a challenge, she’ll be playing Hamlet herself. In the latter play – in which she has previously played the cross-dressing lead, Rosalind, at the Globe – she this time takes on the less gleaming part of the ageing servant Adam; Endeavour’s Jack Laskey will be playing Rosalind this time.

The casting of the plays is gender-blind in a way that’s genuinely thrilling. Not just Terry’s Hamlet – though that prospect is exciting in and of itself – but the way roles have been assigned across the company.

Shubham Saraf, who plays Ophelia in Hamlet and Oliver in As You Like It, explains that the cross-casting actually reflects a sense that, today, “we’re beyond gender.”

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There are some roles, he acknowledges, where you could argue that gender is more central to the character’s arc. “That’s true of Ophelia,” he says. “But by subverting that, and casting a man, you draw out certain colours in her thread. For me and us as a company, it’s been much more fruitful to look at character on a human level and open up whatever story that creates.”

He compares this to a glass prism: “when you shine a light through it, people will see different colours in it depending on their experiences. It would be reductive to try and control and manipulate that response.”

 “I’m playing Guildenstern, traditionally a male role, but during the play we don’t think about gender,” says Nadia Nadarajah, also playing Celia in As You Like It. She adds, however, that she’s glad the cross-casting goes both ways and they have men portraying female characters – as that would have been the case in Shakespeare’s times.

“Working with Jack as Rosalind, I think of him as a woman. It doesn’t matter about male, female. It’s about being human.

Laskey concurs. “When you come to a theatre you’re signing up to an imaginative contract.”

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As You Like It contains such an amazing discussion about gender and what defines a man and a woman.” It is Celia, for instance, who states that tears do not become a man. When Laskey’s Rosalind dressed up in the forest of Arden, disguising herself as a male character, Ganymede, he gets to explore those ideas – “to play the man a bit more. I’ve found that useful.”

“We have at our disposal a canon and a body of work that is essentially about the human being,” explains Terry, summing up her approach to the plays and to the casting of them. “There are no character descriptions in Shakespeare. There is nothing prescriptive about who can and should play what. Our job as actors is to offer up the impression of a person’s character in all its complexities and ambiguities.”

This then offers up the possibility of alternative ways of looking at the world. “For me,” Terry says, “that is what Shakespeare was doing within the limiting constraints that he was writing in. We don’t have those constraints anymore. When the timeless, mythic, kaleidoscopic worlds he has created collide and collude with ours, then the possibilities are truly endless.”

The determination to explore those possibilities stretches beyond just gender-blind casting in Terry’s first Globe offer. Her approach as artistic director is defined by generosity, and a resistance to traditional structural hierarches.

She’s drawn together an ensemble company of 12 actors who, along with two directors, have been rehearsing the plays over a period of nearly three months. They’ve been encouraged to come in to all the rehearsals rather than just turning up for their individual scenes.

“The heart of the work is ensemble,” Terry explains, “so it felt appropriate to experiment with this way of working and try and redistribute some of the responsibility and creativity, and dismantle those limiting and reductive “roles” that people fall in to. We’re all responsible for telling the story and we all have a sense of ownership over the work.”

Saraf talks of the Terry’s approach and the rehearsal process in general as one of “collective care.”

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“It’s been very empowering,” he says. “It can be very difficult to speak up when it comes to creative decision making.” Here, an atmosphere has been created where everyone feels able to speak out.

Bettrys Jones, who plays Laertes in Hamlet and Orlando in As You Like It, describes feeling “a sense of autonomy, which can be quite rare as an actor.”

It’s a question of trust, agrees Laskey. Some theatre, he explains, is rehearsed in a more rigid way where you’re told exactly where to put your feet and say your lines. “You’re filling up a shell… but our ensemble works in [such a] way that you can say yes to every offer, absolutely, that’s where we’re going now.”

This is of particular importance in a space like the Globe. “We’re free to go where we need to go in a space that is constantly changing,” he says, “with the different audiences that arrive, the different pigeons, the different weathers, or even how we’re feeling on that day.”

“Listening is really important,” says Nadarajah, a D/deaf actor. She picks up Laskey’s thread. “It’s about me trusting the hearing actors and them trusting me. This process is brilliant because we’re all listening to one another. We’re all watching one another and reacting to each other.”

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This focus on communication extends to the audience, she says. “Everybody’s listening and not just with their ears. There’s a moment when I sign to the audience and they respond: they don’t go, ‘oh I don’t understand that,’ they get it.  It is possible to listen with all your senses.”

When Nadarajah’s was first asked to join the ensemble she wondered why they wanted a D/deaf performer to be part of this, asking herself, “why I am part of this team?”

But over the course of rehearsals, the actor – who previously performed at the Globe in Deafinitely Theatre’s Love’s Labour Lost, as part of the Globe to Globe festival – came to relish being part of the company. The exploration of language has been central to that – there’s been a team of interpreters on hand to assist in the process.

There’s a fascinating overlap between BSL and the language of the plays, she suggests; Shakespeare uses a lot of descriptive language. This works really well in BSL as deaf people also use a lot of evocative detail. She illustrates this: “Deaf people would hold a heart in their hands and show it turning to dust,” she says before concluding that: “Shakespeare creates a place where deaf culture and hearing culture can meet”.

“There is,” Terry concludes, “a dynamic and ultra live relationship with the audience at the Globe. They bring a spontaneity and energy and hunger for play and the actors need to be able to match that level of play and spontaneity as honestly and as presently as they can.

“That takes rigour when working on the plays in the rehearsal room, and takes total bravery, trust and faith in your fellow players when you get on stage. You can’t fake that.”

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