Carolyn Howarth puts a feminist spin on “Troilus and Cressida”
How do you steal the heart of a disaffected teenager? Send in Alan Rickman.
In the summer of 1985, a relative nobody who’d go on to make millions weep in the “Harry Potter” film franchise blew everyone away in a production of “Troilus and Cressida” at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
For one audience member in particular, the late Alan Rickman’s turn as Achilles alongside other acting stars was life-changing to witness.
“I loved how cynical and satirical the play was,” says Carolyn Howarth. “I was 19 and coming out of the politics of the 1980s, so I really appreciated the edgy, biting humor. Shakespeare didn’t softball anything. It was a really visceral, immediate, exciting experience for me.”
Shakespeare’s Trojan War epic tells a story of god-like heroes, embattled kings and the tragedy of two doomed, disillusioned lovers who seem like grown-up versions of Romeo and Juliet. The mythic mélange of drama, comedy and history in “Troilus and Cressida” was what ultimately hooked Howarth on theater.
The rest, as we now know, is history: Howarth earned her MFA from the University of California Davis, then appeared in and directed scores of plays all over the West, including a handful of productions at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
This summer, Howarth is set to return to CSF for a sixth season, this time directing the very play that clarified her career path all those years ago. But it’s not 1985 anymore, and Howarth plans to bring “Troilus and Cressida” into the 21st century by casting women in a few roles usually reserved for men.
“It has troubled me for decades that women are such a rarity in Shakespeare festivals simply because the plays aren’t written with that many female characters,” Howarth says. “If these plays were written today, they likely wouldn’t be cast with just men.”
In Howarth’s production, the traditionally-male roles of Ulysses, Agamemnon and Aeneas will be female characters. She hopes that putting women in positions of militaristic power proves that men aren’t the only ones who can pull off hubris and biting humor.
“This is a big, macho, violent, scary, sexy play, and I think it can still be all of those things when it’s coming through a female lens,” Howarth says.
CSF’s Artistic Director, Timothy Orr, couldn’t agree more.
“Carolyn is a master at telling these huge, heroic stories,” Orr says. “I can’t wait to see her ‘Troilus and Cressida.’”
Given the change in command, Howarth says cutting the play’s many lines about the weakness of women was a no-brainer. But by and large, she says, the most powerful gender statements unfold without any script edits at all.
“When you don’t even touch the script, you’re forced to see how the men of the play deal with women in power,” Howarth says. “They can’t just run roughshod over the women anymore; they have to be dealt with, interacted with, as equals. So that creates tension, and a whole other set of obstacles comes up.”
This will be Howarth’s first time directing “Troilus and Cressida,” but it isn’t her first go-round with a large-scale historical play. She says her proudest moment at CSF thus far has been directing last summer’s “Henry V.”
“I pushed myself out of my comfort zone in that production,” Howarth says. “Taking on such a huge project with that amazing cast was just an exquisite experience.”
Almost as exquisite as watching Alan Rickman on stage.