In a change from the usual travel posts, an article I read this week resonated with me, reminding me of one of the many influential people who have crossed my path along the way and helped to make me who I am.
Jane Lunnon, Head Teacher of Wimbledon High School in London, has been in the news here in the UK for encouraging pupils at her all girls school to identify with the heroines of Shakespeare’s plays rather than modern celebrities. Whilst I agree with the sentiment behind Ms Lunnon’s actions, I’m not sure why her students’ role models have to be limited to the Bard’s women (particularly when you consider that all parts were portrayed by male actors when the plays were first performed and many spend much of the action dressed as the opposite sex). I suspect that my views are partly influenced by the fact that I have long been taught that my gender should not determine my fate. One particular example of this lesson also involved Shakespeare and a school teacher.
As a child I loved books and words and drama. I desperately wanted to be an actor. When I was about nine I was taken to watch a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was being staged by the local Secondary school. Also in the crowd that evening was Mrs Doyle, the teacher who ran my Primary school’s extra curricula drama club. She spotted me in the audience and, in the playground the next day, she stopped me to ask if I had enjoyed the show. When I said that I had she wanted to know which character I would like to be if we were to put on the play. Titania was my instant reply.
All these years later I still remember the surprise on her face. ‘Really?’ she said, ‘I have always pictured you as Puck’. This confused and disappointed me. Why wouldn’t I want to be Titania? To my young mind she was the lead, the Queen of the fairies in a play about fairies. She was magical and powerful, all of the things that I longed to be. Was I not good enough to be a Queen? Not good enough even to play at being a Queen?
Like all good life lessons, the true meaning behind my teacher’s words only came to me much later when I was better able to appreciate and understand the sexual and class politics the play explores. Queen of the fairies Titania may be, and more than a match for her husband, but still she is fooled, tricked out of her prized favourite, subjected to derision and, eventually, pacified.
By contrast Puck is the only character to move the action forwards, triggering the confusion and bringing about its resolution. He dances freely between the human and fairy realms and his language shapes and defines everything he observes. If it really is all a dream then Puck is the imaginative sleeper, creating a world where the self-appointed rulers are not the ones in control. He is the playwright personified within the play, pushing the boundaries, occasionally too far, resulting in a re-write, shaping the plot and engineering endings. Puck is the author of his own destiny.
Setting aside for now who is the better role model, Puck is the greater actor’s challenge and that is what Mrs Doyle wanted for me. She did not see why I had to be limited in my choice of roles to those notionally ascribed as ‘female’ or ‘for girls’. I should be able to be whoever I wanted to be. Mrs Doyle was gender blind in her casting. Under her direction I appeared on the stage in many guises, the sorcerer’s apprentice, the pied piper of Hamelin and Prince Charming were just a few. It didn’t matter to her, and it never occurred to me, that these were ‘boy’s parts’ and that I couldn’t or shouldn’t play them.
I am now more than twenty years and six hundred miles from that place but the influence stays with me. Mrs Doyle was right, I am more Puck than Titania and I am very happy to be so. If, through some chance of circumstance you come to read this Mrs Doyle, thank you. I will always be truly grateful that you helped to keep the potion from my eyes.