Characters for our times – The gender bending of Rosalind and Henry V

In this guest post, writer, biographer and author of Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine, Angela Thirlwell marvels at the actress Michelle Terry’s ability to capture the nuance and essence of a character regardless of their gender, and Shakespeare’s ability to write such rich a diverse roles, which are still being reimagined and recontextualised today. 

On a rare day of sunshine in this unreliable English summer I saw Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park. In a daring piece of cross-gender casting by director Robert Hastie, mesmerising Michelle Terry played the King. Only a year ago, at Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside, she was a triumphant, exuberant and intelligent Rosalind, the heroine who finds her true self in drag as Ganymede. Here’s the first thing: As You Like It and Henry V were both written during the same season around 1599.

Michelle Terry as Henry V

Michelle Terry as Henry V

In both gender-fluid roles, Michelle Terry inhabits the dynamics of growing up, anatomised so powerfully by Shakespeare. As Ganymede, Rosalind makes on the face of it, ‘a pretty youth’. As Henry V, the boy-king too is ‘in the very May-morn of his youth.’ But both these apparently different characters mature, catapulted into roles of leadership. What unites them is their increasing self-knowledge.

During Wimbledon fortnight while I playfully wondered whether Rosalind played tennis, I noticed that real tennis balls actually feature in Henry V. They are symbolic of Henry’s new grasp on foreign policy. The French Dauphin sends Henry what appears to be a ton of treasure. When the chest is opened, the Duke of Exeter peers in to see only ‘tennis balls, my liege.’ It’s a diplomatic snub of breath-taking insolence which Henry instantly clocks. His witty riposte uses the technical terms of real – or royal – tennis as it then was (and is still played today at a few courts) the forerunner of modern tennis:

When we have matched our rackets to these balls
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chases.

Michelle Terry as Rosalind (as Ganymede)

Michelle Terry as Rosalind (as Ganymede)

The Dauphin’s mockery ‘turned his balls to gun-stones’ and to the horrors of the battle of Agincourt. I found it heart-breakingly poignant to see this battle choreographed onstage on the 100th anniversary of World War One’s Battle of the Somme. The actors stepped through water channels that were instant reminders of the mud of the trenches. My grandfather Joe Goldman joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, later the Machine Gun Corps, and was wounded at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, another bloody battle a year after the battle of the Somme.

Angela Thirlwell's grandfather in the trenches in Flanders in 1917 holding a bomb.

Angela Thirlwell’s grandfather in the trenches in Flanders in 1917 holding a bomb

In this production of Henry V it isn’t only the king who is played by a woman. Some of the ordinary troops are also played by female actors, as is the wonderful Chorus of Charlotte Cornwell. Her authorial role threads through the play from beginning to end, putting a friendly arm round the shoulders of the audience and encouraging our imaginations to work. ‘Think when we talk of horses, that you see them.’ Today women are prominent in diplomacy, in government and in the armed forces so this cross-gender casting makes sense and makes for universality.

Regent's Park Theatre

Regent’s Park Theatre

As part of the peace settlement after Agincourt, Henry gets Katherine, Princess of France as his Queen. A male actor (Ben Wiggins) plays Katherine exactly as the role would have been taken in 1599. Their courtship scene – Ben playing Katherine, Michelle playing Henry – so often one of sheer comic relief, has a new, meaningful, dual-gendered gravity. I heard Henry unpick the old cliché about love, ‘to say to thee that I shall die is true, but for thy love, by the Lord, no,’ with exactly the same wry precision that Rosalind rebukes Orlando: ‘Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.’ Inspirational Michelle Terry makes both Henry V and Rosalind characters of our time.

Angela Thirlwell has written Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine, which is published by Oberon Books

9781783198559

Into the spotlight steps Rosalind, the actor-manager of As You Like It.
She’s alive. She’s modern. She’s also a fiction.
Played by a boy actor in 1599, she’s a girl who gets into men’s clothes to investigate the truth about love.
Both male and female, imaginary and real, her intriguing duality gives her a special role.
What is a man? What is a woman?
We are all Rosalind now.

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