Fringe Theatre Reviews: Shakespeare's Women

We shine the spotlight on The Bard's female characters at the Edinburgh Fringe, including all-women takes on Titus Andronicus and Othello, plus Titania - A Solo Cabaret, Method in Madness and Willy's Bitches

Feature by Neil Weaving | 21 Aug 2015

The UK's only all-female Shakespeare company, The Smooth Faced Gentlemen, have two shows at this year's Fringe, performed just hours apart by a single cast. Their first, Othello [★★★★☆] is an immensely likeable take on a tragedy that shifts between comedy and drama with confidence. Centred on a stellar performance from Ashlea Kaye (also the company's artistic director) as a swaggering, duplicitous Iago, their Othello manages to be accessible and fun without sacrificing depth. The decision to portray the macho lead's posturing as ridiculous is one that works particularly well with so much of the cast playing against gender. A solid production of a solid bit of Shakespeare.

Titus Andronicus [★★★★☆], meanwhile, is an inspired take on the Bard at his most batshit. Taking an abstract approach to the extreme violence of the script, the actors wield paintbrushes in place of prop weapons, regularly topped-up with blood-red paint. As the bloodbath progresses, paint gets everywhere – the walls, the floor, the cast, their clothes. This disassociation from reality makes the bloodshed of the play palatable as black comedy without trivialising the brutality of it. In the case of the play's violence against women, having that all-female cast helps too. In both productions, the Smooth Faced Gentleman's greatest success is their pitch-perfect sense of tone, and with Titus they manage to stick with the source material's manic swerves to showcase it as a bizarre parody of the classical revenge-tragedy at its most ridiculous.

Entita Theatre's Method in Madness [★★★☆☆] is an exploration of the difficulties associated with playing one of the most demanding female roles in Shakespeare's oeuvre (Hamlet's Ophelia), set in one of the more stressful periods of British dramatic history – the London blitz. Both of these take their toll on the psyche of a young American actress who, turning to method acting to connect with her role, struggles to keep hold of her sanity. While the physical elements of the piece are well-choreographed, early attempts to wring comedy from 'bad' line-readings fall flat when her joke-acting is only a modicum more overstated than the sincere performances throughout the piece. As the drama escalates the play does hit its stride, but the abrupt ending comes all too soon after it does so.

Titania - A Solo Cabaret [★★★★☆] is a dreamlike one-woman show that sets sections of verse from A Midsummer Night's Dream to music. Anna-Helena McLean makes heavy use of a loop pedal to embellish her voice, layering on rounds of lyrics to the beat of strange vocalisations, and accompanied by the haunting tones of her cello. The result is something like Shakespeare by way of Fiona Apple, and the format beautifully highlights the musicality already present in the play's writing. True to its source material, this is a dream constantly threatening to turn into a nightmare.

Lacking Titania's singular focus and suffering for it, Willy's Bitches [★★☆☆☆] is a disjointed series of musical numbers sung by a such a broad selection of Shakespeare's female characters that a fairly comprehensive knowledge of his work is required to know who's who. What's worse, for a piece purporting to celebrate the strengths of these figures it has an awful habit of reducing them to stereotypes – Beatrice and Hero from Much Ado About Nothing suffer the worst, desiccated into hen-do caricatures. With so many of the songs verging on trivial, the abrupt swerve into brutal melodrama for Levinia's number feels particularly out of place. What we're left with feels less like a coherent work of its own and more like a demo reel for the talents of its cast – though those talents, at least, are evident.

Othello: An All-Female Production, Underbelly Potterrow, 'til 31 Aug, 12:20pm, £11.50/£9.00

Titus Andronicus: An All-Female Production, Pleasance Dome, 'til 31 Aug, 5:00pm, £10.50/£8.00

Method in Madness, Greenside, 1:45pm, 'til 22 Aug, £7.50/£5.50

Titania - A Solo Cabaret, Summerhall, 'til 30 Aug (not 24), 6:25pm, £12.50/£10.00

Willy's Bitches, Assembly Checkpoint, 15:10, 22, 26, 28, 30 Aug, 3:10pm £11.00/£9.00