Lyndall Grant discusses fighting women - guest feature

Thrice Ninth Productions, are staging an adapted version of Henry IV Part 1 at the St James Theatre Studio 29th Sep to Friday 3rd October 1pm , as part of their Lunchtime Theatre programme.

This piece has been performed already at the Rose Bankside last month, and we were thrilled to find the run was very well-received. It has gained some attention for our reimagined role of Lady Percy as a strong female role and pivotal driving protagonist.

We have adapted this Henry IV Part 1 for five actors in a modern corporate setting, with Shakespeare's struggle for the throne playing out as a visceral battle of the boardroom. Integral to this setting is the presence of a strong female character, which we created by combining the original role of Lady Percy with two male characters (so that Lady Percy, alongside Hotspur, represents the entire Percy family). In the face of a corporate 'glass ceiling', Lady Percy effectively is a 'puppet master', using her strategy and intellect to manipulate the male characters.

We were pleased to find this struck a chord with the audience and was accepted without question. However what has received most comment, is the fact that Lady Percy (who I play) has a prominent 'fighting' role. I was quite surprised at the level of attention this attracted, as I also work as a Fight Director, dramatic combat teacher and fight performer - and in fact often see females out-perform males in this as a 'movement' art. I also never usually even consider my gender in my work (although every so often you do meet a guy who doesn't like being told how to fight by a girl... until they see you start to work). Comments ranged from the fact that it was 'impressive', 'unbelievable', 'kick-arse'; that she wouldn't have been able to fight with heels (despite the fact that I did successfully); that she couldn't fight wearing a pencil skirt (again, despite the fact that I did successfully); and even that she shouldn't have been so skilled at fighting (despite the fact that it was me, with my skills, as a female, performing the moves). Eventually even the remarks that it was 'so amazing' to see her fight, became a back-handed compliment. Why the hell should she NOT be able to fight?

On the flip side - in choreographing the fights I was acutely aware of how it could be perceived by the audience to have men fighting a woman: ie. if one of the men hit her they would lose favour. I deliberately made most of their moves 'misses', 'grapples', or a strike only when driven to an extreme. I did deliberately make a choice that she was a 'good' fighter (I almost didn't, I must admit). So on the whole Lady Percy fares quite well - although still on one hand there was still a comment that 'I knew the fights must have been choreographed by a girl - because the boys throw her to the ground so roughly, and no man could have put that in.' So despite all the times Lady Percy inflicts pain on one on the men, this person noted 'how roughly' they threw her to the ground!

Incidentally - NO ONE made a comment about any of the boys fighting each other (other than general remarks about the choreography and performance).

The fact that it was so Noted has for me opened up a whole new range of questions on our perceptions of female roles. We appear to be conditioned to endorse a certain stereotype in many things, including of what it means to 'fight like a girl' (there was a good facebook viral on this recently - I think for Dove?). It occurred to me that in popular media, a female usually is portrayed as Unable-to-Fight; or she is Sexy-(Scantily-Clad)-And-Can-Fight; or she is 'Mannish'-And-Can-Fight. A female who fights as herself alongside men is rare. We were very careful with Lady Percy in terms of her costume so she was feminine, strong without using a 'device' - ie. a pencil skirt rather than trousers so that she was not perceived as being 'masculinised'; and a knee-length skirt rather than short skirt so that she was not perceived as exploiting 'sex'.

Moving forwards, through the play I would like to widen the discussion on the roles of females in drama and how this relates to popular perception (are these roles a reflection of what we think; or is what we think a reflection of what we are being shown? Or both?).

Shakespearean pieces are often criticised for their lack of strong female parts - although this disparity is perhaps understandable given the context and era in which the plays were written, and considering that historically the parts would have been played by young boys. It could be suggested that if Shakespeare were writing today he would be at liberty to add in greater numbers of strong females, especially in reflecting society as it is. In Henry we do still only have 1 female part for 4 male parts. Not as many as I would like, however in this case it has been set to reflect a 'typical' corporate setting, with part of the point being that Lady Percy is there in a world of men. And as it turns out, and as she predicts, she carries the blame and takes the fall for all that goes wrong.

(c) Lyndall Grant 2014

Henry IV Part 1 at St.James Studio 29th Sep to Friday 3rd October 1pm:

Lyndall Grant also runs Captivate Action Ltd, which trains and provides performers for motion capture and dramatic combat:

"It is frustrating that in film most of the 'fighting' roles are for males. What's interesting is that we've found in motion capture some women can play men just as well. The trick is convincing the industry of this!" - Lyndall Grant.

Author's review: