'The Roaring Girl': Performing Gender and Identity in Theatre

The Roaring Girl (1611) is a Jacobean play about the high stakes of getting dressed. Co-written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, the play is based on real life criminal crossdresser Mary Frith (‘Moll Cutpurse’). The comedy will now be performed at the Michael Pilch Studio. Shamika Tamhane spoke to Flora Clark (Designer) and Laura Henderson Child (Co-Director) about their unusual and exciting production.

ST: Why did you choose this play and how did you go about adapting it?   

LHC: I do English and studied the play in Michaelmas, finding out that it’s rarely performed. It’s an interesting time to stage it because of how identity politics and gender are at the forefront of our thought. Our concept is how we perform identity through clothing and how it can be an external process. The central character Moll is a cross dresser - vital to the narrative - who is constantly performing identity. Renaissance era comedies depend on marriage as a plot driver so she doesn’t naturally fit into the structure which makes her striking. But all the characters perform and construct their identity throughout, so it’s ironic because they don’t realise it’s in themselves and not just in Moll. In terms of the lines, we edited the text but chose not to modernise the language. 

The Roaring Girl is quite an old play- more than 400 years old. How have your costumes helped in keeping it up to date whilst staying true to the themes of the work?

FC: We didn’t want either period or modern dress. Instead, we wanted accents of period costume like shoulder pads, corsets and ruffles to highlight the construction of identity and gender. All the costumes are stored on stage and the actors come and change, playing multiple roles aside from Moll. This means they are actually more performative than Moll which is something we try to touch on throughout. 

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Were you inspired by previous adaptations? 

LHC: I actually don’t like many of the previous costumes or adaptations. A recent one randomly relocated the plot to Victorian London. Sometimes people pick haphazardly to modernise or choose another era which can be a lazy way to adapt - just changing things for the sake of it.

FC: Yeah, I think it loses the relevancy that way. Reading the play and its fascination with gender and the duality it presents of male and female reminds us that it is actually very relevant. So performing gender and artificiality is something we wanted to convey in the costume. We used light, translucent material and skeletal material which is not tied to fabric. 

So, what was the source of inspiration for the costumes?

LHC: Well, a lot of contemporary designers play with deconstructing clothing and boundaries. Molly Goddard does this frequently and Rodarte’s use of shape is especially bold. Kanye West’s ‘Yeezy’ collections have also used rips which broke down the structure of the garment. All of these designers have morphed the body in ways that we have tried to take on board to our design. 

FC: Speaking of Kanye West, we also used a more neutral colour palette like he did for the majority of our costumes. 

How did you get interested in costume design?

FC: I initially did more set design and did art at school which was mainly installation based work. My last experience in designing and making costumes was helping out a friend and it sort of went from there. I will say that the costume and set are very much linked. Things like wire, ruff, and fabric also dress the stage and not just the characters. Costume and set, in my mind, weren’t two distinct things. 

Is there any particular costume which was your favourite to design?

LHC: Mistress Gallipot definitely. She seems like a minor character but is at the junction of many plot points. She has an affair with a man called Laxton who’s all slimy and wily. He thinks he can get money from her but she is completely in control of him. She is very important and could be very easily overlooked which is why we approached her costume in a certain way. 

FC: Yeah it was my favourite to make. It has a tall Elizabethan standing ruff made with metal wire which is quite grand and emphasises shape and deconstruction once again. 

LHC: I also really like the costume for Moll Cutpurse. All of the others are quite neutral and the shape is much more important. Whereas, she has these huge red shoulders pads and big breeches with amazing patterns to make her stand out on the stage. 

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So how would you say the costume and set play off each other? 

LHC: Having costumes on stage as a large part of the set is important. The actors play numerous roles and change into their various costumes on stage. As they change costumes quite rapidly, the set will simultaneously look visually different as the plot progresses.

FC: Also, the lighting is all important in this because it ties it all together through creating shadows and shapes which work really well. 

What was the physical process of making the garments like? 

FC:  It completely depends. I’ve been doing a lot of sewing shoulder pads. A lot of it has been stuff we already have. That’s the fun of costumes- you realise how much you and your friends have. Playing with wire has been really fun too.  

LHC: It’s a lot of repurposing. Flora’s white tutu has ended up being a key costume. 

FC: Yeah, I bought a tutu from Ebay to wear for Queerfest - it was so big! I didn’t know how to store it afterwards so I put it on my lamp and the light made me realise how good it would be to use. It also made me think of similar materials like white organza and cheap chiffon. 

You have spoken a lot about the performance of gender. How did you approach blurring gender boundaries through clothing?

LHC: We thought long and hard about this because it could be done insensitively or crudely. As a director, I have seen many plays where men play women and vice versa- everyone does it. I think a good example would be the character of Mistress Openwork who is played by a male actor wearing the white tutu. Mistress Openwork is quite a naturally anxious character and isn’t in the play a lot which makes it harder to make her appear compelling. It could quickly become a pantomime and a sendup of femininity. Crucially, he is the only male actor playing a woman as most of the cast is female. We have directed him as an actual person and made sure that the traits he plays are not rooted in gender. The costume is already so self-consciously gendered. It does the work for us. 

FC: On that note, for me, it was important that the performers explore gender and identity in different ways and not just through costume. It is the other characters, and not Moll Cuttpurse, who perform identity more frequently. 

LHC: Yeah. There are four old men in the play: Sir Adam, Sir Guy, Sir Davy, and Sir Alexander all played by women aside from Sir Guy. These are the men who make decisions to drive the narrative. Sir Adam and Sir Guy are only in a couple of scenes so we let the actors make their characters into extreme- bumbling old men which must come across in the acting not costume. Their bumbling actions and misdirected, confused masculinity creates all this chaos which ends up driving the plot. 

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The eponymous ‘Roaring Girl’ is, of course, a cross dresser. Would you say that her costume is subversive? 

LHC: It’s subversive in that you would expect her costume to be more dramatic and over the top even though it uses the same visual language; the only difference is that it is in red. This was to draws attention to the fact that they are all constructing identities, gendered or otherwise but she is the only one who is punished for it 

FC: It is almost consciously not being subversive. It’s not the most extreme in its flamboyance aside from the colour, and the fact she is the only character who does not change costume. In being the least complicated, it is the most subversive. 

The play has a lot of energy and comedy in it. How do you think costume helps this? 

LHC: There will be a sense of dynamism in the fact that in most scenes, someone will be doing a costume change. Also, the only set is two railings of clothing. These create whichever spaces the actors are in. 

FC: In terms of movement, it was important to have things which aren’t heavy. I wanted light material which responds to lighting to create lots of shadows. As far as I could, I tried to get materials that were translucent as I’m always thinking about the effect of lights on the stage. 

LHC: Definitely- heavy costumes can slow down the pace of a scene. We associate heavy period dress with dusty productions we have seen previously. In terms of creating comedy, there is one moment of disguise which happens mid scene. When Trapdoor, a spy, dresses up as a wounded soldier by wearing an eyepatch. A mid scene disguise is a nod to something they are doing throughout the whole play. It creates comedy and irony because they have been doing this the whole time but, here, one character is able to catch out another.  

Are there any other things, aside from costume, which have helped you develop the themes in the play? 

FC:  Music is played over every scene change and when there is a costume change. We have purposefully chosen artists who are associated with identity politics or ironic, tongue- in- cheek visual identity. We used a lot of Janelle Monáe- the trousers worn in the ‘PYNK’ music video are so cool. It was a big cultural moment of last year in terms of gender identity and politics. There has also been a lot of music from Lizzo and similar artists. 

‘The Roaring Girl’ will be performed at The Michael Pilch Studio from the 29th May- 1st June at 7:30pm. Tickets can be purchased here 

Photographs provided by Oliver Garrett

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