‘Margaret of Anjou’ revisions Shakespeare with feminist slant

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Hillary Clinton, Cersei Lannister and Margaret of Anjou are three bold studies in Western political womanhood.

None of the three can make total sense without first analyzing the others. Across the oceans that divide the three, in terms of epoch and in terms of authority, there exists a through line of deceit and demonization. Women in power have never been able to wield authority in quite the same way that men have so easily accrued and maintained power over the course of European and U.S. history.

“Margaret of Anjou” — a work presented by Those Women Productions playing at the Live Oak Theatre on Shattuck Avenue through this weekend — puts every woman in politics at the fore, with the above three figures specifically named in tandem in the director’s notes.

The script is actually based on William Shakespeare’s more popular historical plays, namely “Henry VI” and “Richard III.” Drawing on the story of 15th century queen consort of England Margaret of Anjou — a woman of great renown and infamy — who led England and her husband’s house in some of the most harrowing moments of the Wars of the Roses in her often incapacitated husband’s place.

The project of restructuring Shakespeare’s historical tetralogy is a bold, radical act in itself, and the fact that the play is as well executed as it is is an incredible testament to the playwright. The script draws from Shakespeare’s classic texts, with additional writing in the plays’ original rhyme and meter inserted where necessary, creating a cohesive whole with Margaret as the bold protagonist.

“Margaret of Anjou” makes Shakespeare’s densest, driest scripts accessible and informative, and the differences between the original Shakespearean text and newly written work is indistinguishable.

Supplanting the focus of the tetralogy’s narrative arc about the Wars of Roses onto Margaret pokes at the absurdity of political systems based on interpersonal quibbling and bloodline.

In this particular production, a complex allegorical connection is drawn between the Wars of the Roses outlined in the script and World War II, as director Libby Vega has chosen to set “Margaret of Anjou” in 1940s England. Unfortunately, given the highly specific and historical nature of the “Henry VI” trilogy and “Richard III,” the general aim of this temporal repositioning doesn’t entirely explain itself. The inexplicable historical jump, while intellectually engaging and emotionally stimulating, is largely unsuccessful in its project of suspending disbelief in order to draw the wartime parallels it attempts to forge.   

“Margaret of Anjou” has been marketed specifically as “Feminist” Shakespeare. This is somewhat disingenuous, as Shakespeare has often been known to craft incredibly nuanced and complex female characters, Katherine Minola of “Taming of the Shrew” and “Lady Macbeth” being among them.

The most feminist revision here of Shakespeare’s original work might actually lie in supporting actor Nic Sommerfield’s incredibly interesting juggle of multiple parts, including a young Prince Edward and a female nurse. Gender bending in Sommerfield’s casting and performance is evocative of Shakespeare’s original project and historical period, in which men were often required to play women’s roles. Sommerfield takes on both masculine and feminine roles, embodying both with precision. Shakespearean gender swapping has always been an important element in performing his work, but here, gender-swap casting takes on an entirely new shade, subverting the original outmoded cultural need for masculine performers in favor of Sommerfield’s rich, nuanced gender swapping across the binary throughout their performance.

Lighting designer Monica Bowker and costume designer Genevieve Perdue’s use of red in this production — red gel lights from above, Margaret’s bold red dress in the latter half of the first act and other red accents in characters’ wardrobes — is a stunning choice. The color motif denotes the stain of blood on war-makers’ hands as well as the blood of menstruation, both critical thematic elements to “Margaret of Anjou.”

Bare, minimal sets allow for the central focus to be on the performances. Those Women’s production, then, of this spliced reformulation of original texts is still reminiscent of the original Globe Theatre performances during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

William Shakespeare, most likely a feminist in his own place and time, would have been proud to see his work take on new life in “Margaret of Anjou.”

“Margaret of Anjou” is playing at Live Oak Theatre until September 11.

Contact Justin Knight at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that “Margaret of Anjou” is a community theater production. In fact, it is hosted by theater company Those Women Productions, though the production is being held at a community theater.