The Breeches Role: Women Claiming Shakespeare in

Bring Down the House, Parts 1 & 2

“Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible,” declares Richard, Duke of York, confronted with the murderous and war-like Queen Margaret in the second part of Seattle Shakespeare’s Bring Down the House. This production, with an all-female cast and a female director (Rosa Joshi), sets out to confront the first part of this statement: “Women are.” The women in this play perform every part, and although this decision doesn’t necessarily reveal anything new about the individual characters, it does make for a smart exploration of gender and power in a somewhat forgotten portion of Shakespeare’s canon. It also bluntly and successfully challenges the notion that Shakespeare’s testosterone-laden history plays don’t have many parts for women, staking a claim to drama that has often shut out female actors.

Seattle Shakespeare has partnered with the local upstart crow collective to create a grim, fast-paced adaptation by Rosa Joshi and actor Kate Wisniewski (Queen Margaret), reducing Shakespeare’s three plays on the weak Lancastrian king in Henry VI into two parts. Condensing the plays into two is probably a wise choice; Henry VI is stuffed with characters and plot lines involving the warring Yorks and Lancasters, the loss of English territory in France, a populist rebellion, backroom dealings with necromancers, and rapid-fire alliances and dissolutions of alliances. By slashing the text, this production, at its best, is able to focus on the intimate violence of the court schemes and betrayals that lead to rebellion and civil war. The design is unembellished, using simple wooden tables and chairs to indicate thrones, barricades, castle walls, and molehills. Its most prominent feature is the royal family tree writ large across the stage floor, depicting the lineages of the two main claimants to the throne: the Lancaster Henry VI, milquetoast son of the heroic Henry V, and Richard, Duke of York, the deposed Richard II’s cousin’s granddaughter’s son. (At least, I think that’s York’s claim—it takes him 42 lines to explain his descent.) Characters gesture toward their family trees to defend their bloody civil strife, pointing to the legible noble heritages that never cease to remind us that all of this slaughter is a family affair. These visible lineages are especially effective when names are chalked onto the floor. After Henry foolishly agrees to marry the impoverished princess Margaret of Anjou, the new queen’s name, written in a different hand, is added as an indelible assertion of her new power. Later in Part 2, the mobs of Commons following the rebel Jack Cade add his name to the floor, along with a doodle of bricks to show his descent from a bricklayer. It’s a wonderful mockery of the self-important pedigree speeches given by the nobility.

However, some of the cutting of the script, especially earlier in the production, makes the action too fast-paced, at the expense of emotional engagement and thematic clarity. The early portions introduce so many squabbling nobles that it’s difficult to keep track of anyone’s relationships or desires. By the time the play reaches the pivotal scene in the rose garden—here staged with rosebushes portrayed by cast members, so that the feuding nobles wrench their red and white roses from human bodies—the ambitions, disagreements, and battlefield losses that drive the division remain fuzzy. In large part, this is because the stage has been too busy up to this point to establish any hints at histories between characters, relationships between factions, or standout themes.

The original Henry VI plays include an entire subplot involving a vilified Joan of Arc (she is French, after all) and her fiendish, unnatural battlefield successes. Although Joan, with her defiant self-confidence and underdog victories, seems like an irresistible character to include in any adaptation of Henry VI, Joan is cut from this streamlined production. As a plot choice, her disappearance makes sense—most of the French battles and plotlines are cut in favor of concentrating on the English families engaging in the War of the Roses—but in an adaptation that emphasizes female bodies in traditionally male domains, Joan’s absence is thematically puzzling. It means cutting the text’s most direct exploration of a woman in armor and the gender troubles that arise from her presence. Giving up Joan means giving up the chance to watch the other characters react to being unmanned by a girl. That loss is felt, especially in Part 1 as it struggles to find compelling character and thematic work in the midst of the many plot details of shifting alliances and discord. Part 1 eventually finds its center in York, whose flinty soliloquies and confident manipulations make her the most well-defined and understandable character. But until then, motivations and relationships lack the significance that an ambiguous, challenging, and potentially demonic figure like Joan could have offered. The Henry VI plays aren’t as popular as Shakespeare’s other histories for a reason: there’s no Prince Hal and Falstaff dynamic at the center, no poetic Richard II reflecting on kingship, no Agincourt speech. There’s also no giddy Vice like Richard III—at least, not until near the end, when Richard’s delightful nastiness emerges to replace York’s private schemes as the primary connection between a character and the audience.  Without these charismatic figures, it’s too easy to feel disengaged from the rapid court machinations.

The text of Henry VI, like all of Shakespeare’s plays, is well aware that gender is performative. Many audience members already know that the roles originally would all have been played by male actors, with boys taking the female parts, but the actors didn’t only demonstrably perform womanhood. The heroines of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies routinely mock what it means to perform a boy or a man when they don breeches. (The Merchant of Venice’s Portia rather delightfully claims that she’ll truly sell her disguise as a man through constant bragging and a studly walk.) By flipping the all-male original practice to an all-female cast, this production sometimes highlights the way characters enact their male and female roles, but it works best when the actors don’t seem to be forcing ‘male’ or ‘female’ as their defining characteristics. The manly battlefield posturing sometimes becomes overkill, and dressing Queen Margaret in shiny bubblegum pink shouts ‘girl!’ in a way that simply doesn’t make sense for her character. But Mari Nelson’s resentful, scheming York has a dominating presence that contrasts nicely with Betsy Schwartz’s quivering piety as King Henry, and Nike Imoru’s Warwick is commanding enough that we believe her as a kingmaker in court and on the battlefield. The forcefulness of York and Warwick doesn’t come from an imitation of manly prowess, and Henry’s weakness does not—thankfully—get played as ‘feminine,’ which it easily could in a production less conscious of its choices about gender and power dynamics.  

There are, however, a few moments where the discordance between the masculinity of the role and the femininity of the actor becomes central. Occasionally these moments are missteps—watching some of the actors struggle to swing broadswords was a quick reminder that these weapons were designed for hulking male bodies, for example—but the production makes richest use of this discrepancy during York’s agonized speech to Margaret in Part 2. Seeing York, by far the most powerful, calculating, and imperious woman on stage, castigate Queen Margaret for her stubborn and remorseless unwomanliness gives these lines a fresh discomfort and comes closest to making explicit one of the production’s central questions: what is a woman’s part, in the world of Shakespeare’s history plays? The production doesn’t constantly dwell on this question, but its explicitness here is effective.

It’s good to see that these newly claimed women’s roles are not merely played by white women. Bring Down the House has a diverse cast, and it’s clear from the show’s fundraising pitch for educational outreach that this is a conscious choice. However, the diversity of the cast is not reflected in the central royal figures: Henry, Margaret, Richard, Duke of York, and Edward (York) all appear to be white. Prince Edward (Lancaster—yes, there are about six possible names for men in 15th-century England) is played by a black woman, but her role is comparatively small and always subordinate to Margaret in her scenes. This feels like a missed opportunity.

The text itself offers a potentially fruitful and interesting opening to cast an actor of color as Margaret. Her presence disrupts the family tree of English kings, and her difference from them is never allowed to be forgotten, especially by the Yorks—who are all cast as white here. If the production aimed to be diverse and equitable but somehow ‘colorblind,’ then the disproportionately white royalty is a disappointing oversight; if the parts were meant to be cast with some consciousness of race and role, then Margaret might have been a compelling choice. Kate Wisniewski’s ‘normal woman in abnormal circumstances’ Margaret doesn’t quite make sense in the world of the play. She never fully pulls off the magnetism of a woman with no dowry who is able to rise to queen, or the authority of a queen who could lead armies in defiance of the king. When she tells Henry that “The northern lords that have forsworn thy colours / Will follow mine,” it’s difficult to know why they would. She, more than Henry, is the direct counter to York, and should be as commanding. More than commanding—Margaret needs to become awful, in every sense of the word. She’s stronger in her scenes with her paramour Suffolk and in her final scene with both Edwards, but she never becomes daunting or prophetic. Why not cast someone like Nike Imoru, who made Warwick an important role by the force of her charisma more than anything particularly interesting about her lines? Casting a non-white actor as Margaret isn’t the only possibility here, but the point is, while the show is diverse, the diversity in the casting could have been considered more carefully and critically.

As a whole, however, Bring Down the House is an ambitious and appealing collaboration between Seattle Shakespeare and upstart crow. The production centralizes explorations of gender and power, and it doesn’t struggle in making the historically specific monarchical conflicts feel relevant. Seattle Shakespeare would be wise to continue working with the collective, and with other groups that can bring thoughtful, challenging perspectives to canonical works.

Written by: William Shakespeare, adapted by Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski

Playing through: January 25 to March 12, click HERE for tickets

  • Directed by: Rosa Joshi
  • Produced by: Seattle Shakespeare and upstart crow collective
  • Review Lead: Emily George
  • Review Team: Andrea Iaroc, Emily George, and Stephanie Hankinson