Romeo and Juliet
Season 08-09 Season

About All-Male Productions

Boys Club: All-Male Shakespeare Then and Now

The film Shakespeare in Love closes with the chaotic premiere of Romeo and Juliet in 1590s London. Shakespeare himself is pressed into service to play Romeo, and Queen Elizabeth makes a cameo appearance in the audience. But the most surprising turn comes when a young woman takes the stage as Juliet.“Stage love will never be true love while the law of the land has our heroines played by pipsqueak boys in petticoats,” she had lamented earlier, and for one performance she breaks that law.
Shakespeare in Love takes plenty of poetic license with history, but it also reflects an astonishing fact: in Shakespeare’s day, no women appeared on stage. All of his great female roles, from Juliet to Viola to Cleopatra, were originally played by young men. Female actors were denounced as “monsters,” and a visiting French company that included women was booed off the stage in 1629.

When Charles II returned from France in 1660 to retake the English throne, he allowed women on stage for the first time. Before a ground-breaking performance of Othello featuring a female Desdemona, a prologue proclaimed: “The woman plays today; mistake me not! No man in gown, or page in petticoat." A few actors continued to play female parts, but within a few years the “pipsqueak boys in petticoats” were gone.

The tradition did not disappear entirely; in places where no women were available, such as all-male boarding schools or colleges, boys played the female parts well into the 20th century. And William Poel experimented with using boy actors at his historically accurate Elizabethan Stage Society in the early 1900s. But these productions were seen as curiosities, the residue of a long-dead and unfortunate custom of English theatre.
More recently, however, a few intrepid companies have revived the practice of all-male Shakespeare, discovering new revelations about the text and characters in the process. In 1991, the British company Cheek By Jowl reintroduced the world to the possibilities of all-male performance with their hilarious and deeply felt production of As You Like It. The brilliant actor Adrian Lester, who played Rosalind, confessed that he was initially terrified at the idea of portraying a woman. “But as soon as I forgot about what I looked like in a dress,” he said, “I could concentrate on what it meant to love. It took the play to another level; it was a wholly liberating thing to do. And if you as an actor believe it, then the audience will, too.” Critics and audiences alike raved about the production.
When a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre opened in London in 1997 using original performance practices, all-male Shakespeare began to gain traction. That same year, the young British director Edward Hall formed Propeller Company, which has since toured inventive all-male productions of seven Shakespeare plays around the world to great acclaim. This fall, the Shakespeare Theatre Company joins in with its all-male Romeo and Juliet, which will change the way audiences see one of Shakespeare’s most familiar plays.



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