Tina Packer performs feminist interpretation of Shakespeare
Published: Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 10:10
For Packer, husbands may come and go, but Shakespeare is one man who has been with her all her life. She grew up near Stratford-upon-Avon, so close by that she visited it often on school field trips. The first Shakespearian play she saw was “The Taming of the Shrew,” which was her opener at Friday’s performance of “Women of Will.” She went on to perform in school productions and study Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), but she claims that it wasn’t until she was accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company that “[she] started being immersed in Shakespeare.” She discounts her time at RADA because “they didn’t particularly think I was any good at Shakespeare because my accent wasn’t the right accent.” (Packer describes her accent as “too working class.”)
Though Packer began her career at the Royal Shakespeare Company, she was not interested in classical Shakespeare. “I started thinking I wanted to do it differently,” Packer said. The company’s style was too classical for her taste; she read Shakespeare as bawdy and vital. She continues, “And so out of that—my desire for what I wanted to do differently-–I became a director.” This was a brave act on Packer’s part. “There weren’t many women directors in those days, and certainly not of Shakespeare. There was one called Buzz Goodbody, and she killed herself!” She laughs at this; Packer has a well-developed sense of humor—a devilish wit that matches her fiery red hair.
Packer served as director of Shakespeare & Company for about three decades before stepping down a year ago to focus on “Women of Will.” But she began work on the project many years before that, balancing Shakespeare & Company and “Women of Will” by taking four-day weekends to develop the latter. Packer estimates that by the time she’s finished with it and has taped a polished version, it will have been twenty years since the genesis of the idea.
Packer’s ideas arise organically from her experiences: “When I was about two-thirds of the way through the canon, that’s when I started to realize that there was a pattern and progression to the women.” Packer says she was “always interested in the women” in Shakespeare’s plays—not only because she’s a woman, but because, with only about 177 women to 770 men in the Bard’s plays (depending on how fairies, Ariel, etc. are classified), women are the outsiders in Shakespeare’s plays.
Despite her fame and success—she is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and fellowships, the founder of Shakespeare & Company, one of the United States’ best-known Shakespeare companies, and the subject of both a documentary and a biography—she claims that she has “always been an outsider” due to her unorthodox ideas about how to perform Shakespeare. She appears unfazed by the fame and is still very friendly and approachable. “Now all of a sudden I’m an insider, but I still feel like an outsider!” she explains merrily.
In addition to the two obvious meanings of “Women of Will”—women of Will (William Shakespeare) and women of will (willpower)—there is a third, more obscure meaning that Packer explained. In Elizabethan England, “will” also meant sexual desire. This third meaning is particularly relevant in Part Two of her five-part series, “The Sexual Merges with the Spiritual.”
The first incarnation of “Women of Will,” which Packer performed about 14 years ago, only had three parts, dividing the women into three groups. The first group of “warrior women,” includes Joan of Arc, his first female character. The second encompassed both the women who “lived underground” and those who “died to tell the truth,” which includes women from Rosalind, who escaped society’s oppression by disguising herself as a boy and running off into the wilderness of the forest of Arden, to Desdemona, who died because she could not make her truth be heard. Parker ties these two together beautifully in a splicing of scenes from “As You Like It” and “Othello” that compares them directly. The third group was called “The Maiden Phoenix” and focused on “the daughter redeeming the father,” a good example of which is Marina, from Shakespeare’s “Pericles.”
In the current incarnation of “Women of Will,” the original three parts became parts one, three and five, respectively. “I realized it was five parts,” explains Packer simply. “Part Two became ‘The Sexual Merges with the Spiritual: New Knowledge.’” Packer put what she terms “the couples plays” in this category—“Romeo and Juliet,” “Troilus and Cressida” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Part Four, which she inserted between the original second and third parts, includes “the plays of despair, which are ‘Lear,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Timon of Athens’ and ‘Coriolanus,’ where the woman’s voice just simply supports what the woman thinks the man wants and is following this… aggressive male voice,and how that ends up in fascism.”
Packer ties the development of Shakespearian women to biographical details in Shakespeare’s life—for example, she thinks Shakespeare’s women became deeper and more complex when he fell in love, perhaps when the “Dark Lady” to whom many of his sonnets are addressed appeared on the scene. Packer connects the emergence of the “daughter redeeming the father” theme with Shakespeare’s return to Stratford and the subsequent renewal of his relationship with his daughters. The connections are interesting, but Packer is careful to keep her work rooted in the text.
The various readings are all supported by textual evidence, which is one of the things Packer loves about Shakespeare—“I think that’s their power and their strength, that every age reinterprets… can see themselves in Shakespeare.” She clarifies, “It’s not just that you see yourself in Shakespeare, he also leads you somewhere more… Shakespeare has actually taught me some things about being a woman.”