Scott Ellis: ‘It doesn’t matter if the actor is male or female’
Pursuing a modern concept of producing Shakespeare’s plays, artistic director and actor Scott Ellis founded Merely Theatre, which stages gender-blind productions. He tells David Hutchison about the company’s current tours
How do your gender-blind Shakespeare productions work?
We have a rep company of actors, five male and five female, and we create Shakespeare plays for just five members. Each pair of actors is a male/female pair, and they rehearse the same parts, and then on any given night, either of any pair can do the performance. So it can be any combination of male/female actors playing the role. That gets around the fact that a lot of female characters in Shakespeare are subordinate, or small, roles. The biggest female character is Rosalind, and Hamlet has about three times as many lines as she does.
Is that a big factor in your decision to perform gender-blind plays?
I think in a modern society we should be aiming to be as 50:50 as possible. As good feminists, we believe that there should be equal opportunities for male and female actors. One way of doing that is with new writing, and making sure there are both male and female writers writing both male and female-weighted plays. But Shakespeare is at the centre of English theatre – we’re so lucky to have such a great playwright – but the problem with that is that he was writing at a time when there weren’t any female actors. But as a classical company that wants to put on his works, this is what we can do to make sure we hold up modern standards.
What effect do you think gender-swapping has on performances?
We try to ignore it. We try never to ask the question in rehearsals: “What would this man do, if a woman were playing her?” We start with: “What does the character want? What is the character saying?” If the actor happens to be male or female, as far as we’re concerned it doesn’t make any difference. We’re doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where some jokes are mildly gender-specific, so we may have to think – because it doesn’t quite work in the same way – what we want out of that joke. But our starting point is completely ignoring it and treating them all as individual characters. Audiences may take something different out of that, but just as a male and female actor are different, so are two male actors. You will never get two identical characters, whether it’s male/male or male/female. It’s about the quality that actor brings.
How do you think audiences are responding?
We did Henry V at Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre about six months ago when we were first playing around with the idea. The night that got reviewed was a female Henry V – four women and one man – and we got five-star reviews. Like watching something with subtitles, you ignore it after a minute or so and just watch the play. Talk to a Shakespeare practitioner and they’ll tell you: the text comes first. The words are the only things you really need.
CV: Scott Ellis
Training LAMDA (2006-2009)
First professional role Fenton, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Changeling Theatre (2010)
Agent Production Exchange Management
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