Tragedy of Mariam Assistant Director Sara Reimers, and actress Paula James speak about the process of bringing the first London production of the first play published by a woman to the stage.
It’s the kind of question you might find in a pub quiz: name the first original play in English known to have been written by a woman. Now name the playwright. Yet having spent the last few months working on said play, we have found that very few people have heard of The Tragedy of Mariam and its author, Elizabeth Cary. When we’ve been out publicising the show, people have responded with surprise that the woman occupying this unique place in English literature should be unknown to them. Yet Cary’s relative obscurity no doubt stems from the fact that in the four hundred years since its publication, there has never been a fully staged production of her work in the capital…until now.
We have been working with Lazarus Theatre Company on their production of The Tragedy of Mariam which is the first known staging of the play in London since its publication in 1613. As practitioners we are both well versed in the work of Shakespeare and our knowledge of the time at which he was writing is shaped by its depiction in his plays.
Yet Mariam sheds new light on some of the preconceptions that we might have had about Jacobean England and particularly women’s role within society. Exploring issues such as female agency, divorce and abusive relationships, many of the themes of Mariam remain all too relevant today. Written by a woman at a time when women were banned from performing on the public stage, Cary’s text is remarkable not only for giving a voice to a host of varied and nuanced female protagonists, but also for waiting until the fifth scene before featuring a male character.
At first glance it might be easy to brand these wildly contrasting women with a sensational Hollywood tag-line to define them: Mariam the Chaste, Salome the Black Widow, Alexandra (Mariam’s mother) the Betrayer, Doris the Spurned Woman and Graphina the Naïve. Cary’s text however offers a much more in-depth consideration of femininity, exploring what success means for these women and the tactics they use to achieve it. Dying for their beliefs, fighting against the injustices of gender discrimination, and putting their own pain and suffering to one side for the sake of their children, these women are so much more than a tag-line. Using their intellect, connections and guile to gain influence and power, each one of them makes huge sacrifices along the way.
Lazarus are well-known for producing plays with strong female leads and all-female casts, such as their all-female production of Women Of Troy at the Blue Elephant Theatre last year. This is extremely exciting and wonderfully refreshing in an industry where (to quote Richard Schechner) “For every Ophelia and Gertrude there are Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Gravediggers [and] the Ghost”.
The casting practice adopted by Lazarus goes further than simply placing female actors in male roles, as the text is adapted to transform male protagonists into female characters. This was a key component in Lazarus’ recent production of Lear, which featured the brilliant Jennifer Shakesby in the title role, and in Gavin Harrington-Odedra’s adaptation of Mariam, a handful of male characters have been adapted into female characters and the remaining male roles stripped back to just one protagonist, Herod. This device gave us the space to create a world that had been freed from the oppressive rule of a tyrannical King, exploring how these women existed without the fear and weight of male domination, only to have that freedom taken away when Herod returned.
In contrast to the patriarchal society depicted in the drama, our rehearsal room was a female dominated space, comprised of two men (one of whom was the director Gavin Harrington-Odedra) and 10 women (one of whom was Sara, the assistant director). Some companies would have rehearsed by only calling in the actors required for a particular scene, which would have seen our Herod being called in pretty late in the day, but the ensemble nature of this production is uniquely cultivated in the rehearsal room; this means everyone has to be in attendance at each rehearsal as we work through the text, write the music and devise the action. This inclusive style of rehearsal, lead skilfully by Gavin, meant that every voice had the space to express itself while we as a company uncovered and developed these remarkable characters.
Classical drama’s 2:1 casting ratio in favour of male performers has been widely reported and it is refreshing to work with a company which is committed to addressing this inequality. Furthermore, choosing to stage Mariam, Lazarus is challenging the ongoing lack of recognition for female playwrights. Last year The Guardian reported that women writers accounted for only 35% of the new plays put on at England’s top ten most subsidised theatres and when combined with numerous revivals of canonical works by writers such as Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekov, it is clear that we still have a long way to go before women’s voices are equally heard in the theatre. That Mariam begins with a female character musing on her experience of speaking publically, ‘How oft have I with public voice run on’, demonstrates how many of the issues that Cary explores remain pertinent today.
It has been a humbling experience to work on this landmark production of Cary’s challenging and inspiring play and hopefully now, should the question of England’s first female playwright arise, a few more people will know the answer.
Paula James & Sara Reimers