#MeToo-themed, but all-male? NZ Pop-up Globe's Shakespeare play draws backlash

The Pop-up Globe says it will tackle misogyny and the #MeToo movement in its upcoming season - by performing The Taming of the Shrew with no women.

The theatre company has performed a season of William Shakespeare's works in a replica of the London Globe every summer since 2016.

On Tuesday, it announced its "most controversial season yet" of Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure and Richard III. Two casts - one male, one mixed - will each perform two of the plays.

One of Shakespeare's most famous plays, The Taming of the Shrew centres on the headstrong Katherina who is tormented and eventually 'tamed' by suitor Petruchio.

Pop-up Globe founder and artistic director Dr Miles Gregory says the production, to be performed by the all-male cast, will touch on contemporary gender issues.

"In the age of Weinstein, #MeToo and #TimesUp, it feels entirely right for us to reflect current conversations in the world through ambitious and thought-provoking programming."

The decision to exclude women from participating in a play about misogyny was met with anger from the theatre community. People also took issue with the Pop-up Globe using the #MeToo movement to market a play with an all-male cast. 

The hashtag #boycottpopupAKL began circulating on social media soon after the announcement.

Newshub has approached the Pop-up Globe for comment, but they did not reply before deadline.

Auckland actress Erin O'Flaherty says the company's use of the phrase is "salt in the wound" after she, along with any other woman considering a role in the play, was barred from auditioning.

"Not only are they not giving equal opportunity to women, but they're using this issue which is really serious for a lot of women," she told Newshub.

"I can't see how they'll create a feminist piece when they only have male perspectives."

Dr Lori Leigh, senior lecturer at Victoria University, says she initially thought Dr Gregory had been misquoted when he mentioned #MeToo.

"It seemed unreal that a theatre with a male artistic director who programmed two all-male Shakespeares (with no all-female Shakespeares) would be using a political movement that was a reaction to real female sexual assault and harassment in marketing."

The Pop-up Globe is the world’s first full-scale temporary working replica of Shakespeare’s theatre.
The Pop-up Globe is the world’s first full-scale temporary working replica of Shakespeare’s theatre. Photo credit: popupglobe.co.nz

She says the decision shows a "real lack of integrity", and that Pop-up Globe has no business labelling the production as feminist.

"Here's some womansplaining of feminism: Men can be and are feminists, but all-male Shakespeare isn't feminist," she says.

"Part of feminism is about women telling stories of women and representation. If I was a young schoolgirl attending this all-male Taming of the Shrew, I'd feel pretty disempowered when I looked at the stage and saw a bunch of men. I'd feel like I wasn't worth the space or the stage."

Ms O'Flaherty says she's had issues with the Pop-up Globe before because of its "insistence" on all-male casts. She didn't attend any performances until last season, which included a female version of Julius Caesar.

That cast apparently felt undermined by the theatre company, not performing as frequently as the other casts and only on Mondays and Tuesdays.

"It was like they were testing the waters, like they didn't trust an all-female cast," Ms O'Flaherty says. "So it's disappointing to see them take a step back now."

She says it's hard enough to get good female roles in New Zealand theatre, and Pop-up Globe's decision feels hurtful and exclusionary.

"They're not supporting the whole community."

While all-male casts aren't necessarily bad, she says there needs to be a reason intrinsically important enough to the text to justify excluding women - and that any company with an all-male cast should have an all-female cast for balance.

"A professional theatre company has a responsibility to think carefully about the decisions they make and the impact they have."

In contrast, Summer Shakespeare Wellington has announced its own upcoming season of Hamlet, in which the Bard's most famous character will be played by a woman.

It will be directed by David O'Donnell, associate professor in theatre at Victoria University. He says Shakespeare becomes more relevant to modern audiences with inclusive casting practices, which are common across theatres in the UK, Australia and the USA.

"In Shakespeare's time, women were forbidden to perform onstage - but despite this, several of his plays feature cross-dressing and gender-bending themes," he told Newshub.

"So Shakespearean plays have always been a rich territory for exploring gender issues and power relationships in society."

He says he fully understands why women feel marginalised and excluded by the Pop-up Globe's announcement of an all-male cast.

"I've seen some all-male Shakespeare productions, and while they can be interesting from a historical perspective, they propagate offensive patriarchal power structures which I doubt that Shakespeare himself would have agreed with.

"I live in a multi-gendered world, so all-male Shakespeares aren't relevant to me personally and don't reflect contemporary society."