Ms-Directing Shakespeare: Women Direct Shakespeare By Elizabeth Schafer The Women's Press 7pp. £14.99 ISBN 0 7043 4544 7.
Keat's sonnet On sitting down to read King Lear again reminds us that such is Shakespeare's genius that his plays are open to inexhaustible interpretation. It has been said that it is as difficult to define the meaning of a Shakespeare play as it is to pin down a life. Yet it is the theatre director's job to find, through the rich ambiguities of the language, a theme that is both relevant and comprehensible to a contemporary audience without being untrue to the text.
It comes as no surprise that this daunting but exhilarating task has historically been the monopoly of men, but Elizabeth Schafer is concerned with the issue of women's access to Shakespearian theatre, not so much, one suspects, because she loves Shakespeare or is excited by the challenge of directing it, as because directing Shakespeare is prestigious and women have a right to a slice of the cake. She exhaustively documents women's marginality and exclusion: only six women have ever directed Shakespeare on the RSC stage at Stratford; women directors today remain a tiny minority. With rare exceptions such as Deborah Warner, they are mainly confined to the provinces and it is high time, Schafer says, for "an alternative theatre history".
This she fleshes out with interviews with just nine women theatre directors, from Joan Littlewood, Gale Edwards and Jude Kelly to the lesser known, there to be rescued from obscurity.
They all have tales to tell of prejudice and struggle in a patriarchal theatre, though they suggest disappointingly little about what makes a woman's approach to Shakespeare distinctive, save a preoccupation with narrow gender politics.
Much space is devoted to discussing what these women have to say about their own Shakespeare productions, but productions selected in the main for their emphasis on purging Shakespeare of misogyny rather than for their subtlety. And here the crudeness of Schafer's analysis comes to the fore, for in her zeal she strips the plays of all artfulness, of open-endedness, conveying little sense of directing Shakespeare as discovery.
Take what Schafer calls "that wretched" and "very dangerous play" with its "unsavoury storyline", The Taming of the Shrew. Gale Edwards's 1995 RSC production was very badly received: Benedict Nightingale, for instance, hated a Katherine and Petruchio made into "exemplars in a marriage guidance manual aimed at unreconstructed males". Schafer insists that Edwards's cuts and changes were not distorting but intelligent: her translation of Katherine's famous speech into one of angry defiance and her engineering of Petruchio's remorse, hammered home in a programme note ("Petruchio slowly realises what he has been doing in the name of love. By the end of the speech his dream has become a nightmare"); the cutting of Petruchio's "Why there's a wench! Come on and kiss me, Kate!" so that Katherine has the final say - unfaithful to Shakespeare's ending, but feminism must come first.
There is no greater difficulty for the gender-preoccupied Shakespeare director than King Lear, because the language gets in the way. How to deal with all that "vividly expressed and poetically effective misogyny, much of it voiced by Lear himself'? Could the answer be to cast Lear as a woman, as Helena Kaut Howson did in 1979 at the Leicester Haymarket? But once again a woman's production got bad reviews - evidence of more misreading from a biased male establishment.
Perhaps the most that can be said is that Schafer looks at an impressively wide variety of plays, yet the more one reads, the less one gains, beyond the understanding that the reduction of meaning to simplistic gender politics does not make for good Shakespeare.
Mary Tomlinson is fiction editor, Bloomsbury Publishing.