The only way is Unsex

Oliver Forrest looks at Unsex Me Here in Blackwell’s Bookshop.

Unsex Me Here could easily have been something very different. Creator and director Mary Flanigan told me that her initial, quickly altered, idea was something along the lines of “The Vagina Shakespearean Monologues”, with speeches by Shakespeare’s women simply read out on stage. That would have been markedly different, and in this critic’s opinion far worse, than what this production has now become. So, while the cast (Rafaella Marcus, Jessica Norman, Helen Luckhurst and Dionne Farrell) is still all female, and the focus is still on Shakespeare and women,  Flanigan decided to set the play at a rehearsal for such an evening, and have the actor, director and producer of the fictional show discussing the women in Shakespeare in between practiced lines. A critic, questioning the accuracy of the monologues and the like, was also added to the character list. The impression is created that the work of Shakespeare is not there to be merely appreciated, but doubted, criticised or downright rejected.  Watching Marcus perform a speech from Romeo and Juliet whilst playing an actress who hates the character is a fascinating experience. Flanigan has brought an originality to Shakespeare which makes Unsex Me Here a very promising production.

Monologues and feminist criticism are placed in the framework of a script written by Flanigan herself, but she is open to alterations from the cast. At one point Marcus questioned her character’s use of the term ‘wimpy girl’, suggesting that ‘ingenue’ would feel more natural for her character. The word is changed, and they move on. Shakespeare’s words have been kept for the most part verbatim, but the critic will chime in when mistakes are made; one of the critic’s most common complaints is that lines are quoted incorrectly.  The critic is an interesting device, and, depending on the audience’s reaction to her, could end up as the best or worst remembered of the characters. If the device fails there should still be enough quality in the script to make her unimportant, and should it succeed it will add an original dimension to the play. Either way, she is a character to look out for.

There may be problems, of course. The set-up is clever, but it will take great skill from the actors to bring out the depth of their characters; in particular, the monologues must be read by the character, not the actor. Watching the conversations between actor and director yesterday, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was in the play, as they talked of the graveyard for female Shakespearean actors who are too young for Cleopatra but too old for Juliet. It is crucial that the same feeling comes across on the night; the audience should feel as though they are sitting in on something, rather than being performed at. The production is only on for one night as well, so there are no second chances with regards to slip-ups. However, the play promises to be a truly rewarding experience. There is something to be said for letting the source material speak for itself. But Shakespeare’s had 400 years to speak for himself. This production gives someone else a turn, and is one not to be missed.

Four stars ****

Oliver Forrest