[Playing with Plays]
It’s a story we’ve heard before – Shakespeare’s works were not written by the man named William Shakespeare, but by someone else, or maybe even a group of people. The list of suspects usually ranges from Christopher Marlowe to Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Bacon. But this show proposes something different: that the plays we all know and love were, in fact, written by women.
It’s clear from the get-go that this is a send-up of all those theories rather than a serious historical investigation. We are welcomed into the theatre as adjudicators for a ‘Shakespeare in Performance’ assessment of a group of students at the Aspirational Community College (or ACC), and handed a pen and paper with assessment criteria for us to mark off. And this am-dram premise does not disappoint. Think actors vying for the best parts, trying to upstage each other and engaging in a constant bid for control over the piece.
Over the course of this shortened version of Leah Pellinkhof’s Dell’Arte Award-winning play, we are treated to the comic spectacle of a villainous Shakespeare stealing plays from various historical females (including Mary Queen of Scots and a Miss Frances Bacon), and a presentation of the ‘original’ works, featuring an idiotic Macbeth and a gender-bent Hamlet. The Australian playwright’s text is successfully brought to a New Zealand context, with jabs at local actors and a smattering of over-the-top kiwi accents. It is a high-energy, meta-theatrical romp that is not afraid to poke fun at its subject matter.
Beyond the comedy, the play is an examination of gender in Shakespeare, and on our stages more generally. It contains a reminder that many of Shakespeare’s works did ultimately reinforce the patriarchal society in which they were written, and that we don’t get to see Shakespeare from a female perspective often enough. However, neither of these ideas felt quite fleshed-out enough to support the entirety of the show. The two main conceits – the community college performance and the idea of Shakespeare written by women – didn’t seem to gel together enough to really say something about Shakespeare’s texts or the present day. Without having seen the original play, it’s hard to tell if this was a result of cutting the show’s runtime by half, or if the 2006 play is just not quite current enough to hit its mark in this climate of post #metoo frustration – including frustration that we’re still having to hassle our professional theatre companies to program female-driven/female-written work. But, even if it doesn’t overtly question these norms, the show provides a hilarious antidote to them.
Directed by Brigid Costello, Shakespeare by Chicks is a raucously funny celebration of all things theatre, staged in true Shakespeare fashion – a heightened, metatheatrical comedy about putting on a show. If you pay attention to the assessment criteria, you’ll note the performers tick off all the conventions of Shakespeare they ask you to grade them on, most obviously a play-within-a-play. And it serves up a brilliant breakdown of how ridiculous some of Shakespeare’s more serious plays can be. Jess Loudon’s performance stands out as energetically strong and physically bold, and the group of talented women form a cohesive ensemble who are right there with the audience, responding to our every laugh, woop and yell. There’s no doubt it is a joyous night at the theatre, full of fun, hilarity, and even a cheeky dance number.
The Works of William Shakespeare by Chicks plays Q Vault 18 to 22 February, 2020 as part of Summer at Q and Auckland Fringe.