Blog - These Headstrong Women

Our Assistant Director Nikki Kalkman will be blogging for us over the next couple of weeks and in this first blog shares some insights about our exciting adaptation of Queen Lear.

Wonder Woman. Buffy. Ellen Ripley Jane Eyre. Lady Macbeth.

There have been numerous brilliant female characters created throughout history; rulers, defenders, lovers, mothers. Each one stands up above the crowd of male counterparts with their fists clenched and their flags waving, refusing to settle quietly back down into their seats. This month I have the great privilege of joining Bard in the Botanics’ “These headstrong women” season, as Assistant Director to Jennifer Dick’s adaption Queen Lear. No, no, that’s not a typo. You read it right. Q.U.E.E.N! Queen.

Stephanie McGregor as Regan

Stephanie McGregor as Regan


I’m sorry, do I sound like I’m making a big deal out it? Well guess what, it is a big deal.

This season’s entire premise is to take the words of our 400 year old Bard, dust them off, change a few genders and create innovative and exciting new experiences of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens and of course, Queen Lear.   

Gender Shenanigans

Now Mr Shakespeare is no stranger to some good old fashion gender swapping – you couldn’t swing a skull in most of his comedies without hitting a least one gender-bending character. Ok, ok, ok before all you Shakespeare purist start hissing at your smart phones I know most of the gender swapping shenanigans originally only involved a wig, stuffed underwear or a strategically placed codpiece, but I reckon the Bard would be raising a glass to the innovative and exciting choices made by Bard in the Botanics’ Associate Director Jennifer Dick in her new adaption.  

Lear is Queen; an aging monarch of great standing and respect, bearer of three children; two daughters and a son. I won’t give away who’s who. You can be surprised… That, or you can read the cast list.

It’s the Lear we all know. But with a few new feminist twists.  

Firstly, it’s world where marriage and husbands don’t sit at the top of the ‘to do’ list of everyone with a female pronoun.

Nathan Byrne  as Cornelius with Janette Foggo as Queen Lear

Nathan Byrne  as Cornelius with Janette Foggo as Queen Lear

Secondly, those women are able and even encouraged to become skilled warriors and respected leaders. They run their own houses, they sow the land and they even fight with big sharp pointy swords.  

Thirdly, and most importantly, a person’s gender infers very little about their actions. There are those that fight, those that go mad, those that are captured, those that cry and those that defend those who can’t defend themselves. But they all feel; loneliness, isolation, loss, fear, anger and love. No character is limited by their world’s gendered expectations of them.  

It’s a different world from the one we live in today. It might actually be closer to the one we one day want for ourselves, and I have to admit it’s very exciting to be a part of the team that is building it.  

Sitting under a large tree in the Botanic gardens, listening to the team’s first creative discussion I became dramatically aware of how new this world really is. Yes, the words are 400 years old, but the world is changed. Jennifer’s adaption has created a new world for these characters to live in. But it’s a world that needs to be walked through, pushed and tested. It needs to have questions asked of it and conventions challenged. We need to figure all its shades and textures in complete technicolour, so we can understand it’s rules completely. Once we do that, each of these characters, regardless of gender, can stamp their feet and raise their voices in a place that feels as real and alive as our own.  

Words Say It All

Since then, we have been getting the words on up on their feet. The last few days have been an incredibly interesting process. Days full of asking questions, blocking through the first few scenes and investigating the intentions behind each piece of dialogue. Now, pardon my ignorance, and perhaps I could blame my school drama teacher for their purist approach to teaching me Shakespeare, but that last one was probably the biggest surprise me.

Wait, what? Shakespeare’s words are actually up for discussion? Don’t we know what these lines mean? Haven’t they been read and reread, rehearsed and rehearsed, investigated and analysed and questioned and poked and prodded by the many that came before us? Shouldn’t we know by now what it all means? Isn’t it written down somewhere, what’s happening at any given second in a Shakespeare’s play?

“Of course not! You dummie!” I hear my brain shout at me after the first day.

Theatre is live. It’s changeable. No two productions are alike, regardless of how old or well-read a text is. No two actors play a part the same way and no two directors direct in the same way. Of course it’s all up for grabs, every intention, every action, every motivation can and should be different. Just because a line has been said a few more times than is countable, doesn’t make its intention any clearer for an actor approaching the text for the first time.

In fact, the pre-owned nature of these words may even make them harder to understand, and not because they are written in verse.

It’s that curse of knowledge. Each of our incredibly talented performers stands upon that stage with the ghosts of every actor that has come before them. I greatly admire their ability to shut out their ghostly hissing whispers and with courage and conviction make those words their own.

It is still early days and the vast ocean of this incredibly emotional play stretch out in front of us far as the eye can see. But it’s an exciting and imaginative journey we are setting out on and I feel incredibly privileged to be invited along for the voyage. So I say; “Tally ho, captain! Bring us that horizon!”