Wednesday, 3 October 2012

What happened to feminism?

We had a very interesting week a month or two ago: in the same week we went to see 'The Taming of the Shrew' at the Globe, and 'A Doll's House' at the Young Vic. 

They were both terrific productions, I thought. I've always liked the idea of playing Petruchio as a clown, someone who's unconventional but has worked out how to do it within the boudaries of society, and wants to teach Katherina how to do the same. The BBC production years ago cast John Cleese in the part, and it worked very well. The Globe's actor went rather further, and the shock value was great. Their Katherina was what's always called 'feisty' so it was interesting to see what they'd do about her final speech. You can play it as Kate taking the piss rather to win the bet, but that's a bit of a cop-out; instead they played it pretty much straight.

What was interesting, at the Globe, was to feel - physically feel - how uncomfortable this made the audience. At first it felt like disbelief - was Kate really saying this stuff? How could she possibly mean it? Wasn't anyone going to stop her? And then it slowly turned into shock - she really was going to say it, and apparently without irony, and actually all the people on stage were in agreement with her. The sense I got from the audience was that, despite everything that they'd seen in the play, they hadn't really realised that this was, once, how some people thought. It made me want to look really closely at the text to decide whether it's possible to deduce if Shakespeare is actually over-egging it at this point, or whether you can read it as a statement of his values.

What clinched it was that we had much the same experience watching Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' at the Young Vic.At the point where Torvald, the husband, talks about how he's always seen Nora as the child that he took over protection of from her father, there were gasps from the audience. How sexist! How could he say that! What was Ibsen thinking of.... I wanted to stand up and shout - "This is how it was! This is what decent people thought in 1879! THIS IS WHY WE HAD FEMINISM!"

Both were very strange experiences. Have people somehow forgotten that things were once different? Do play audiences not know that the position of women in society has changed dramatically in the last hundred years?

I suppose there's a side point too, that it's crazy to expect the work of the past to conform to the orthodoxies of the present. I've always strongly disliked the tendency of feminist criticism to accuse the works of the past of not being feminist enough – how could they have been? And you can't demand of all writers that they be politically aware. Gah!

No comments: