Brexit, Feminism and Bad Theatre

Level 5 (second-year) student Ayesha Askar-Harris reflects on some recent trends in theatrical adaptations.

What does it take to make good theatre? Well, when it comes to art everything is subjective. So there really isn’t a formula for making it “good” because no matter what you do you will always have critics. However, laziness is rearing its ugly head in the world of theatrical adaptations and it’s converting interesting source material into devices to talk loosely about Brexit and feminism – miraculously in the same breath. It seems that not only our politics is in crisis, but our theatrical identity is as well.

On the stage, there is currently a big interest in re-purposing older plays to fit with our socio-political climate. I don’t consider this to be lazy theatre, far from it. I’m glad that people are embracing our past (be it good or bad) as a means of better understanding the world around us. However, there is an issue with modern adaptations as they seem to disregard the historical context entirely. Just because a tomato is a fruit, doesn’t mean I’m going to put it in fruit salad. So why just because a play has a woman in it should I present it as a feminist play?

“National Theatre” by Oh Georgie is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 


The ignorance of directors often means that they feel they have a licence to ignore the true themes of the play in favour of the themes that society is presently concerned with. The best example of this from recent months is the adaptation of Miss Julie at the National Theatre, titled only Julie. The play was presented as featuring a “strong female lead.” Really? Are you sure? Because, the last time I checked, undying hater of women, August Strindberg, had written anything but. One of the main themes of Miss Julie is that women are weak, feeble and easily manipulated so it’s comical that of all the plays, with all the female characters out there, the National decided to adapt this into a feminist play. Julie is simply a pawn in Strindberg’s attempt to present women as foolish, so why imply that it’s something we should learn from? Unless you alter the production into an entirely different play, Julie is still a victim of her position in society who is manipulated by a man and who, ultimately, kills herself. If that’s feminism, then it is rather bleak.

Whilst writing this piece, I attended a screening of As You Like It one of Shakespeare’s many romantic comedies and, suffice to say, I was horrified. Once again, aspects of the original play were ignored and altered for the sake of gimmicks. For example, one of the main selling points of the RSC’s latest production of As You Like was its revolutionary ideas around gender roles. This is expected: As You Like it addresses issues surrounding traditional gender roles and even presents the concept of non-heterosexual relationships through Orlando and Ganymede, who unbeknownst to him, is Rosalind in disguise. Then why, should the character of the shepherd become the shepherdess? Why include a lesbian relationship? Well the director herself admitted that “it would be a shame not to.” Is that all homosexual relationships are? Something that it would be “a shame” not to include? On top of that, the idea of Phoebe being bisexual ruins the finale of the play. If her reason for not marrying Ganymede is that he is now a woman, then why would her attentions automatically turn to Phoebe? It’s a complete disregard for the themes of gender and sexuality in the play in favour of modern-day concepts that are only in place for the sake of selling tickets.

I know every theatre company and their gran has put on an Ibsen, but considering he was writing at the same time and a man Strindberg avidly detested due to his love of women, don’t you think that would have been a better choice? By trying to dress up misogyny as feminism, you’re doing a disservice to plays out there with strong and well-written women. You can, in theory, put the tomato in the salad, but it’s not doing anyone any favours.

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