Nicole Cooper on The Tron's all-female Tempest: 'we're having to learn to fight our corner'
If you're an actor, a theatre can look like a closed shop. There are too few parts going to too few performers. Getting a break can seem impossible. Those who belong to an underrepresented group can feel more excluded still.
Andy Arnold, artistic director of Glasgow's Tron Theatre, is trying to change that. His production of The Tempest, scheduled to coincide with the COP26 summit, has been shaped by three criteria that go some way to redressing the balance.
First, there are 11 actors, the largest number the company has ever employed. Arnold has channelled resources to bring as many performers to the stage as possible.
Second, they are all female. In 2014, the director staged a majority female version of The Tempest with students from the RCS. He later mounted a gender-blind production with Chinese actors in Beijing. "A female interpretation brought a freshness and vigour to the piece," he says.
Third, none of the actors has been in a Tron production before. At an open audition earlier this year, 400 actors came forward. With such numbers at large, Arnold felt duty bound to create opportunities.
"There are so many doors that feel closed to you," says Nicole Cooper, the celebrated Bard In The Botanics regular, who leads the company as Prospero. "Hopefully more theatres will pick up on this idea. We've got a rich and vibrant rehearsal room and if people don't get these experiences, how is anybody ever supposed to figure out how their craft works?"
Joining Cooper in the rehearsal room is Glasgow's Katya Morrison. She is delighted not only to have landed the part of Prospero's brother Antonio, but to be working at all. She graduated from RADA at the height of the pandemic in 2020 when employment opportunities had vanished.
"I was going into an industry where all the theatres were closed," she says. "But people in the industry were really willing to help. The Tron's call-out made me feel people were rooting for you. Now it's so lovely to be in a group of people who are all coming into it afresh."
Shakespeare's play, staged here at a streamlined 80 minutes, is set on an island where the banished Prospero has cast a magical spell. Under his control are the sprite Ariel and the monstrous slave Caliban, the only living creatures his daughter Miranda has ever seen. That's until the arrival of Antonio, washed up with his crew in a supernatural storm.
When it comes to cross casting, Cooper has form. In Glasgow's Botanic Gardens, her roles have included Hamlet and Coriolanus, both played as women. In this production, by contrast, the characters remain male. "Even though I'm not playing Prospero as a woman, I am playing it as me," she says. "I'm not doing my old-man acting! But I'm having to question some of Prospero's choices based on how things in the play affect his male ego."
She gives the example of Prospero punishing Ariel for questioning him, after which he heads straight off to wind up Caliban. "I wondered what it was about the interaction with Ariel that makes Prospero think he needs to go and pick on someone else," she says. "For my Prospero, the dent that Ariel causes to his ego by daring to question his authority means he has to go and find someone he has power over. That seems like quite a male energy."
"That's so right about male energy and power," says Morrison. “For women, taking up space is an interesting factor. Masculinity is power in itself and that's something, as women, we don't have for free."
"We certainly don't walk into a room and just claim it," agrees Cooper. "All of the characters in The Tempest walk into a space and lay claim to it almost immediately. There's a fight for space. As female actors, we're having to learn to fight our corner."
The production raises similar questions about colonialism. Cooper, who grew up in Zambia, finds it fascinating to be cast in the role of a man who exerts his authority over a foreign territory only to leave it behind as soon as he can get out. "The production is not going to smack anyone over the face about the environment and the themes of COP26, but people are prone to taking a plot of land and destroying it," she says. "Prospero leaves Ariel and Caliban in an absolute dump, doesn't look back and leaves in such a way that [implies] they should be grateful for it. I'm from an ex-British colony so I'm familiar with this colonial hangover."
Whatever the politics, the women are relishing the opportunity to play characters that are usually the preserve of their male colleagues.
"Coriolanus was the first taste I had of what it was like to lead a company and to have ownership and agency as a character," says Cooper. "So many of Shakespeare's women are reactive. The male-written characters have a mastery of the language that the majority of the female characters just don't. The women don't speak with the same poetry. As Coriolanus, I was able to inhabit a solider and that never happens for a woman in Shakespeare – I love being able to do that and I'm thrilled for Katya and the rest of the team to kick off their first professional Shakespeare saying, ‘No, my character owns the world they live in.'"
The Tempest is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow from 29 October until 13 November, www.tron.co.uk/
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