Shakespeare's Sisters

Fickle Favours' inaugural production gives new voice to the Bard's heroines

In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, two minor characters from Hamlet are briefly given the spotlight before surrendering to their inevitable, titular demises. They are confused by their cog-like smallness in the grand scheme of things, by the reliability of the language they use and even notions of their own identities.

Indeed, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem edgeless and interchangeable at times, and it all ends badly for them. The Shakespearean heroines revivified at the Black Box tonight fair rather better with their – to use a hideous word – re-imaginings. Nevertheless, their freshly minted stories are often tinged with melancholy. These characters are cut from the cookie dough of tragedy, and they retain their shapes.

Shakespeare’s female characters, rarely protagonists, were written by a man to be played by men. There is necessarily a dislocation, a distance; the characters are ideas about women, if not necessarily ideals. This selection of short plays, commissioned by all-female theatre company Fickle Favours, were written to redress a balance, to breathe new life into these often insubstantial characters.

Fickle Favours is a new Belfast-based theatre company predicated to showcasing the talents of Northern Irish female writers, actors and directors. For the company’s maiden voyage, Shakespeare's Sisters, they have chosen to illustrate Virginia Woolf’s extended essay A Room of One’s Own, in which she imagines the straitened life of Judith Shakespeare, the Bard’s equally brilliant sister.

The heavy hitters of Shakespeare’s female repertoire – Cleopatra, Ophelia and Lady MacBeth – all turn up twice, with Lady Macbeth ending the first part of the show as a defiant lady in waiting, in Rachel McCabe’s amusing I Can’t Wait to be Queen.

Lady M is resurrected immediately, starting the second half of the show by shaking off, and out, intrusive insects and rejecting a witch’s offer of a second chance, in Isley Lynn’s Faster Than the Flies. The anti-heroine's post-mortem identity crisis sees her accept all of her mortal transgressions as the markers of her existence – her life, her choices. The offer to remove her 'damned spot' is rejected; she would rather it were tattooed on.

Shakespeare's Sisters

 

The opening piece, Moyra Donaldson’s The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, has a dark cast to it, featuring a shadow play of articulated puppets set to piano accompaniment and Sonia Abercrombie’s languorous narration. It’s a bold start to the show, and one slightly hampered by technical difficulties – the piano threatens to chew up a lot of the dialogue even as the actor is careful to enunciate it.

But the puppetry is effective and the text pointed and sensual and, as a statement of intent for the new company, it manages to name-check both Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Germain Greer’s The Female Eunuch.

Andrea Montgomery’s Hermione and Paulina restages the ending of The Winter’s Tale, with Hermione, after 16 years of hiding from her tyrant husband Leontes, preparing for her big comeback disguised as a statue. But her relationship with best friend Paulina has surely changed during these years of isolation, and much will be revealed before her own miraculous reappearance.

Montgomery’s performance is warm and assured, and this play is full of wry meditations on aging and the nature of friendship. In this most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays, Montgomery (pictured above) also considers why Hermione would want anything to do with her estranged husband.

Best of all is Jan Carson’s Safety Lessons, the story of Polonius (Hamlet), an over-protected father lagging his daughter in cotton wool, and Ophelia, an imaginative and romantic girl, with a sense of destiny and a death-wish that would make Charles Bronson pack up his moustache and his Colt Police Positive.

Ophelia is insulated against harm by regular updates from a radio show entitled 'Safety Lessons for Young Ladies of a Fragile Disposition'. But Ophelia knows she is destined for tragedy and cleverly inverts the advice to 'avoid ponds, streams and watery death-traps' as well as the weekly exhortation to 'Stay inside!'

Carson's script is witty, the staging imaginative and Megan Armitage insinuates engagingly in her quest for a romantic death: her joix de mort is infectious.

There are technical problems on the night, and the staging of 12 separate original pieces is ambitious, to say the least. Some of the dialogue could be improved with the judicious use of secateurs, and some of the acting betrays a lack of experience.

But as a statement of intent and, indeed, as a new company’s debut production, the breadth of the material presented here and the imagination and ambition surely must bode well for Fickle Favours as a strong new contender in the Northern Irish arts scene.