Contemporary circus company Mimbre has created new Fierce Sisters, which celebrates Shakespeare’s women. Artistic Directors Lina Johannson tells Herald arts about the show which opens at New Place from Tuesday this week.
Describe your role in Mimbre.
I’m Joint Artistic Director of Mimbre, a contemporary circus company who use movement, high physicality and circus to create imaginative and visually striking shows.
What would you say is the ethos of Mimbre?
Promoting a positive image of women and challenging stereotypes of what women can and can’t do is something that’s been at the core of the company from the start and which, unfortunately, still feels highly relevant.
I would say the other thing is to be accessible and connect to a wide range of people. Performing in unusual settings and using a mainly physical language has allowed us to reach across cultures, nations and generations.
Tell us about Fierce Sisters – what is it in a nutshell?
Fierce Sisters is a dazzling, immersive promenade performance at Shakespeare’s New Place and visitors will be able to experience Shakespeare’s female characters as they burst out of their stories to claim their own space in today’s world. Beatrice says all the things a kiss was supposed to silence, with additional witty rants through the flowerbeds. Juliet breaks loose from overbearing parents and conventions in an aerial escape from the balcony, where Romeo doesn’t really figure. Rosalind’s cross-dressing confusion in the dressing room leads to contemporary questions around gender fluidity. Kate (The Shrew) simply refuses to be tamed and battles a storm of misogyny in her own playful way. And Lady Macbeth holds little regrets as she washes the blood away. Beautiful, raw, questioning and funny.
Who are the creatives involved?
Loren Elstein is transforming the garden with her production design. Quinta is creating a beautiful soundtrack, and I’ve got a fantastic team of circus artists, dancers and spoken word performers: Arielle Lauzon, Reece Lyons, Madi Maxwell-Libby, Rebecca Solomon and Adèle Thompson.
Describe the devising process – from commission to opening night.
The brief from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was to create a stimulating immersive experience based on the theme of Women and Shakespeare, and I thought this was interesting both as a celebration and a provocation. There are some amazing female characters in Shakespeare’s plays, but it’s complicated as well: how much do we know of them outside of their relation to the men of the play? Why do we keep celebrating marriage as the main destination for a happy life? Why are the ambitious women judged so harshly?Looking at the timelessness of Shakespeare’s plays, I was interested in how we could focus in on a few characters and some issues that still feel directly relevant today.
Loren and I then came back to Stratford and used the New Place garden as another inspiration for which scenes we would like to recreate within it, using the trees, sculptures, balcony.
For each character and question I then looked for the art form that fitted best. Beatrice I imagined as a slam poetry/spoken word artist to translate her sharp tongue and wit into modern culture. With Rosalind I wanted to explore questions around gender fluidity as I thought Shakespeare would have been well up for that with all his cross-dressing and gender play. The pressure on 13-year-old girls now is not to marry but pretty much everything else; what would a 21st-century Juliet rebel against?
With the performers it has then been a devising process to develop the characters and explore all the things we don’t know about them, first in the rehearsal room and then rehearsing in the garden to let the landscape be part of the creation process.
Adding all the bits together: music, sound, spoken word, movement is where all the layers meet; but the real magic is when the audience comes in to respond, and the performance grows its own life.
You’re looking at women in Shakespeare’s plays – was there any particular reason for looking at that now?
I think #Metoo has opened a good dialogue and a recognition that equality has not come as far as some would like us to believe. I think it is interesting when we are looking at something as ‘sacred’ as Shakespeare’s plays – people sometimes seem to be bending over backwards to defend the writing and the characters. We have to acknowledge that these plays were written in a time when women were burned as witches; even though his writing is exquisite, I still think there has to be an acknowledgement and responsibility for what you put on stage now and the comments we make upon the plays through the ways they’re staged.
Looking at the statistics of representation, less than 17 per cent of the characters are women and only 18 per cent of the speeches are delivered by female characters. Even such a simple task as equal representation on today’s stages is made impossible by that, unless you start some gender blind casting (and colour blind!). It’s happening, but maybe not enough.
What are you hoping audiences will get from the show?
I’m hoping they will have a really enjoyable evening out with friends, that they see both the gardens and the well-known characters in a new light. I also hope it will invite some fun dialogues and discussions, tongue in cheek as well as about some serious contemporary issues.
It’s a promenade performance through the gardens of New Place – will it go ahead come wind and snow? And what are the challenges of creating an outdoor show like this?
The challenge is the cold and the wet. We are making it as weather-proof as we can and are aware of the risks as we create it in order to keep the performers safe. Snow would look amazing, a bit of wind and rain we can deal with. Wrap up warm and dry for the night, but if it’s absolutely pouring down with rain please call to check before you arrive!
You’ve done some amazing shows – what have been some of the highlights, and what have you got planned for 2019?
We were in Stratford for Wondrous Strange in 2016 – an outdoor performance as part of the RSC’s creative programme for the Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations. This year we have been touring The Exploded Circus all across the UK – a visual celebration of circus as well as a gentle story about how we deal with change and moving forward.
When and Where: Fierce Sisters runs at New Place from 11th to 15th December with three performances each evening: 5pm, 6pm and 7pm. Tickets are £15 adult, £10 child (suitable for ages 8 and over), £13 concession/SBT Friends, £40 Family (2 adults and 2 children) For more information and ticket bookings, see www.shakespeare.org.uk/fiercesisters