Actress Lisa Dillon plays a cross-dressing “provocateur” in The Roaring Girl, the first of three plays at the RSC where women take centre stage.
The second will be Arden of Faversham, where Sharon Small has the largest female role in all Elizabethan drama.
Both are rarely-performed Jacobean plays about two strong women and form part of the season overseen by deputy artistic director Erica Whyman.
The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker follows “fearless and feisty” Moll Cutpurse, the “Governess of London’s underworld” – last played at the RSC by Helen Mirren in 1983. Moll is based on the real-life character of Mary Frith, a notorious pickpocket, who wore men’s clothes, smoked a pipe and swore when she felt like it.
“Moll is outspoken, she dresses as a man, she smokes, she fights, she’s fiery, she sings, she dances and she loves fashion.
“It’s a difficult role. There are so few role-models. We tried to find one,” says director Jo Davies.
“We came close in looking at Lady Gaga – but I cannot imagine her fighting and she’s not a comedienne.
“Our closest equivalent was Russell Brand; but we couldn’t find a woman who embodies all this things.
“She’s quite an extraordinary character.”
Jo’s first experience at the RSC was as assistant director on A Winter’s Tale with Antony Sher as Leontes, directed by Gregory Doran in 1999.
She is very excited to be making her RSC debut even more so to be doing it with an unknown play.
“I was mostly struck on first reading as to how current the voice of Moll felt,” she says.
“For a woman for her time she was very outspoken but fundamentally saying: ‘I’d like to be judged on who I am and what I can contribute’, as opposed to gender.
“She was just as fragrant in death and wanted to be buried with her bottom to the sky. She was the original provocateur.
“I thought what was an exciting image of a woman on stage; and one I hadn’t seen before or very often since.
“By the end of the play a woman isn’t dead or married, which I found quite liberating. Moll’s is a very fresh, vibrant voice after 400 years.”
In creating the character of cross-dressing Moll, female actors in the company worked with a drag king.
“We had a wonderful workshop with a drag king who came in to talk to us about what it was like to be a man,” says Jo.
“It was quite surprising. I think we all thought we’d all put on some clothes and strut around a bit.
“What was surprising was a man emerged from each of the women. We all did it and apparently it is quite common to discover your inner man.
“I was ‘Tony’ – to all intense purposes I looked like my brother if he’d had a bad 10 years.
“Lisa’s man was ‘Danny Dillon’. Danny was incredibly cool and rather slick and edgy so he became very useful to us for Moll.
“Moll spends most of her time in the play as a man – which causes considerable sexual and social anxiety.”
Jo feels the role of Moll is “quite a journey” for an actor.
“Moll is described as half-man, half-woman. There was an idea that Mary Frith was a hermaphrodite, but it was proved on her deathbed, she was a woman.
“Her sexuality was also in question. She did marry but most chronicles of history say it was a bit of a charade. In her will she left most of her money to the three maids she lived with.
“There is an ambiguity and contradiction in how she behaved. I think Lisa is doing brilliantly with it.
“The wonderful thing about Lisa as an actress she takes nothing for granted.”
Jo said Vivienne Westwood, “as a modern day ‘Roaring Girl’” inspired the look and style of the play.
She adds: “We decided to put it in the late 1880s, as opposed to Jacobean England.
“We felt it was a world more readily understood in having a great class divide between remarkable wealth and the extreme lawlessness of London’s streets.
“Also there was a fashion for slumming where people used to go on tours to the East End for voyeuristic curiosity to see what went on.
“We are going for Victorian costumes with a slant. My designer described it as “Victorian Westwood”.
“My hope is that it’s going to be a bit wild and run as a comedy. It’s got quite an edgy feel to it.
“Moll has her own band, which travels with her, mimicking the real Mary Frith, who used to leap onto a stage with her lute and say: ‘this play is boring – listen to me’. She used to have the crowd eating out of her hand.
“Mary was at the very first performance of The Roaring Girl.”
British film star Emma Thompson helped to support Jo’s career as a young rising theatre director
After training at Bristol University she went on the National Theatre Studio’s director’s course in New York.
“It’s amazing I got sponsored to go to America by Emma Thompson who saw me in a play,” she says.
“There have been a number of people who have been a great patron of my career which is very nice.”
The two productions have a cross cast of 20 actors.
“Polly and I did a lot of casting together and rehearsing in the same space,” says Jo.
Arden of Faversham director Polly Findlay was a child-actor.
The 31-year-old explains: “My first professional job was working for the RSC in Spring Awakening at the Barbican. I was 12-years-old. It was one of the most exciting and happy moments of my childhood and inspired me to go into theatre.
“Coming to the RSC feels like coming home.”
It is also her RSC debut.
“I am thrilled to be doing this,” she says. “The level of support and has been great. I have never worked with a company where everyone works so hard to get every little thing perfect.
“It is very exciting to be directing a play with the largest role for a woman in Elizabethan drama.
“There are still very striking discrepancies in the roles there are for men and women on stage today.
“We have all done so many interviews and people still ask you about being a female director.
“But do people ask how does it feel to be a female doctor, lawyer or journalist? It questions the wider role of women in the arts.”
The Arden of Faversham was published anonymously in 1592 but believed to contain some writing by Shakespeare, and John Webster. It was based on the true story of Alice of Arden who murdered her husband in 1551.
Scottish actor Sharon Small plays Alice.
“Alice’s a strong-willed, independent voice. There are a series of plots she puts together with a hired team of assassins. For the
murder plot she has to be in the driving seat,” says Polly.
“Technically there are many opportunities where she has to hold the stage and we see into her brain.
“She is often the driving narrative force, which is unusual to see in a play of that time.
“Sharon is a strong person; she’s a very generous, charismatic and charming person and gives a really heartfelt performance.”
The play is set in the present day.
“The real-life murder story/thriller element seemed right for a 20th Century mind-set,” says Polly.
“Arden is a businessman so we decided he would be an exporter of Poundland tat like waving Chinese cats.”
Polly’s credits include Protest Song and Antigone for the National Theatre and the Olivier Award-winning Derren Brown: Svengali.
“Working with Derren was great. He is a nice man and for someone wanting to be a stage director it was the best training you could have. You need the same skill set as you do for directing a magic trick as you do a five-act play,” she says.
The third play of the Roaring Girls series in July will be John Webster’s violent tragedy, The White Devil directed by Maria Aberg.
“It’s really good to be looking at different plays that have stronger roles for women, primarily in the hope it will encourage more writers to write strong roles for women,” adds Jo.
* The Roaring Girl runs in the RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until September 30; and Arden of Faversham runs from April 20 to October 2. Tickets: 0844 800 1110 or www.rsc.org.uk