Henry IV at St. Ann's Warehouse
On Saturday afternoon, November 21 we went to see an All-Female cast of William Shakespeare's Henry IV at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. It was staggeringly raw and gutsy. This was the show that spoke to me most illuminatingly so far.
When I was completing my undergrad back in the Philippines I did a thesis about "cross-gender casting" using monologues from Shakespeare's plays. Back when I was a college senior, one of the sources of my "angst" was the observation that men got all the meaty parts in Shakespeare's plays while the women were confined to the tortured love interest roles. I wanted to upend the tradition by compiling a set of monologues from Hamlet, King Lear, Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello and As You Like It which were originally written for male actors and framed them in a structure for my "one-woman thesis show." The experience left me with a ton of questions which I had left alone since then.
Watching the All-Female cast of Henry IV reawakened those questions. During the talk back with director Phyllida Lloyd and the cast after the show, I asked about how they approached the male characters since it is very easy to fall into a trap of "aping" masculinity. Their responses were very much akin to my sentiments almost 6 years ago: that they've felt that the women of Shakespeare had been very much confined to the "love-interest" or the sphere of the domestic. This confinement had implications towards the scope of how actresses and female audiences perceived themselves. They wanted to instill in their sisters, daughters and nieces that women have it in them to lead or be in a larger political space and not just a domestic one. They wanted to show that women can take their space, occupy it and own it. The process of the rehearsals included a physical exploration on how it was like to inhabit a large space using their bodies and the effects it had on how they felt internally. When they delved deep into the characters' desires - they discovered the large human desires that are universal. Here is a quote from director Phyllida Lloyd about playing men in her production of Julius Caesar (also with an all-female cast) which was produced just right before Henry IV:
“The older actors [in the cast of JULIUS CAESAR] came to realise that for decades they’d only been using a portion of their abilities – physically, emotionally, intellectually. They might have been playing Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth, but they still didn’t want to take up too much space in the room. As rehearsals progressed, the realisation dawned on the women that they were the whole thing.”
Re-contextualizing Shakespeare was not foreign to me either. In 2013, an acting company I used to be a part of produced a Filipino adaptation of "The Merchant of Venice" (Ang Negosyante ng Venesya) and it was set during the Holocaust in a concentration camp. On the other hand, this all-female production of Henry IV was set in a prison with all-female inmates.
THE SPACE - ST. ANN'S WAREHOUSE
It was not only the play that reinvigorated something from within. There was something raw and unfinished in the space of St. Ann's Warehouse that appealed to me. It was as if it was a space that had room for nuance, for mistakes, and for something yet to come to fruition. Since it was originally a warehouse the ceilings were extremely high and the walls were made of bricks. There were risers surrounding the stage with plastic blue chairs and no microphones.
If there is one thing that I want to see more of back "home" are new stories crafted and fleshed out fully with largeness and nuance by local playwrights. I do want more Filipino voices heard and Filipino stories crafted with complex, nuanced and dynamic Filipino characters. And I want to create a space and a platform purely for those voices especially if no one wants to fund them. It would be a space where only original Filipino writing can occupy. It would be a space where artists are allowed to fail. It would be a space where artists and audiences can interact. It would be a space where new things can develop.
I am a Filipino actress alternating between New York and Manila. I received my acting training at The Juilliard School. Take a look around!