A feminist take on Shakespeare

17 August 2021

Local theatre collective Blank Space Productions is giving Shakespeare a feminist makeover at the Blue Room Theatre this month. Nina Levy caught up with Blank Space’s founder and creative director, Bridget Le May, to find out more.

Bridget Le May is a Perth/Melbourne-based director, dramaturge and producer, and the creative director of local performance collective, Blank Space Productions.

Blank Space’s latest production, Unbound, is a two act play that repurposes stories from Shakespeare’s canon to address the subjugation and oppression of women embedded in his narratives.

Nina Levy caught up with Bridget Le May to learn more.

Nina Levy: Tell me about the path that led you to this point in your career. Were you into performing arts as a kid? At what point did you know that you wanted to pursue performing arts professionally?

A headshot of Bridget Le May, taken outdoors in the sun. She looks calm.
Bridget Le May. Photo: Joshua Heath

Bridget Le May: I was definitely a performing arts kid. I was immersed all through school. After school I went a little wild, quit uni, hitch-hiked around Australia and ended up in Newcastle working as a magician for festival troupe Lovelorn Living Party. From there I decided to go back to drama school, and from drama school started directing. I think I really decided to make and direct theatre in 2014 after making my first short film. The liveness is unparalleled and I really missed that when I was making film.

NL: You’ve been completing a Masters of Directing at the Victorian College of the Arts – how’s that been going (especially in light of the pandemic and how tough it’s been in Melbourne)?

BLM: Interestingly I have had a positive experience studying in a pandemic. I was extremely fortunate. I left uni after six months of my undergraduate so I was heading into this masters having never studied before.

The lockdowns combined with disaster payments meant I didn’t have to work. I just stayed at home and studied really hard. Studying theatre directing online seems like an impossible task but I even enjoyed directing on Zoom. I tailored all the assessments to fit with the context of the screen and got a lot out of it.

It has not been easy on people though. Many of my Melbourne friends are still really struggling, emotionally and financially.

NL: Tell me about your latest work for Blank Space Productions, Unbound.

BLM: Unbound is a completely new play that we have made in collaboration with Shakespeare’s texts. The Unbound team is myself, Gala Shevtsov, Hannah Evelyn, Hock Edwards, Kynan Hughes and Ryan Marano. The way that we have made the work is playful in its use of the Shakespeare canon.

Unbound consists of two parts, Act I: “The Kingdom” and Act II: “The Forest”. Act I, investigates the realities that women face today in our patriarchal society, using the Bard’s own words. We have created a new play using dialogue from across Shakespeare’s canon. There will be love, disguises, plots for the crown – and like all his epics, few are left standing in the end.

Act II is in many ways a reaction to Act I, that brings you into a colourful, kinetic display of hopes and desires, while dislodging binary perceptions of sex and gender. It connects to what is unique and free in us, as individuals and as a community. There is much less text but every moment finds its roots in Shakespeare’s works.

A woman with long hair and outstretched arms faces a shower of colourful confetti. We can't see her face.
Hannah Evelyn, one of the devisor/performers in ‘Unbound’. Photo: Edwin Sitt

NL: The conversation around the presentation of canonised stage works was lively on Seesaw’s social media after the publication of our review of Opera Australia’s West Side Story (and stay tuned for more on this topic, coming soon), and so your decision to rewrite classic stories from a feminist perspective feels particularly relevant to us! What made you decide to interrogate the work of Shakespeare, in particular?

BLM: It was very important to us to update the narrative around female representation, equality and empowerment. We don’t believe these works should be staged without questioning them or at the very least using irony.

We have been very careful that our adaptation of the canon doesn’t make our female characters overly virtuous or two dimensional. Shakespeare’s insight into our rough human underbellies is part of what makes his work so capturing. But our society has moved far enough through some of these issues that mindlessly replicating them is no longer justifiable.

There are so many examples of this. Katherine is one of the most intelligent, independent and mercurial women in the canon and she is gaslit by Petruchio until she is only a shadow of herself. Ophelia is abused by Hamlet and driven insane by grief. Lady Mac is the stronger of the two in her partnership and equally goes insane and takes her own life in a way that could be argued as out of character.

At every point women are being abused like Katherine or raped like Silvia in Two Gentlemen of Verona or drugged like Titania in Midsummer. And the women we look to as the most autonomous find this autonomy by dressing as men, like Portia and Rosalind. We can and should do better.

Saying this – you really don’t need to know anything at all about Shakespeare to watch this play. The work doesn’t rely on you having prior knowledge.

NL: What do you hope audiences will take away from Unbound?

BLM: In many ways the two halves are like two complete plays that speak to each other in the act of responding to the canon. I hope that this approach encourages a sense of inquiry between the literal and the visceral parts of the work; that we raise as many questions as we answer.

For those that know Shakespeare’s works well, we offer a lot to think about in how we have chosen to shift the representation in the world we create. But I truly hope people can engage with the work on its own terms as well as in relationship to the canon.

Unbound plays The Blue Room Theatre 24 August – 4 September 2021.

Pictured top is Gala Shevtsov, one of the devisor/performers in ‘Unbound’. Photo: Hannah Evelyn

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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