At the University of the Third Age Enfield Chapter, Professor Artemis Turret sets out to refute Helen Mirren’s claim that there are no good parts for older women in Shakespeare. But she's been let down by her actress chum, Dame Bunti Smart – so Turret has to tackle the seven different parts herself. In The Power Behind The Crone, actor and writer Alison Skilbeck has managed to pull off that most difficult of tricks: making an informative show entertaining, and vice versa.
The subject of women in Shakespeare – and older women in particular – is ripe for discussion. At the time he was writing, no women were permitted to act, and their parts were played by boys; even allowing for less enlightened times, it must have further discouraged playwrights from writing female roles. Modern productions find ways round it – gender-neutral casting, changing male roles to female (such as Mirren's Prospero) – but this production concentrates on the older women as originally written by Shakespeare.
The professor appears to sounds of rain and thunder; a nice nod to the most famous of Shakespeare’s old crones, though the witches aren't actually featured here. She's harassed, and full of apologies for the non-appearance of her friend, who has been held up by a Game of Thrones style film shoot that is “still a few murders short of a massacre”. This clever device allows the frustrated actor in Turret to perform the roles, and also leavens the mix with some comedy at Bunti’s expense. Of course, Turret turns out to be a very fine actor, and while there may be plenty of humour, the Shakespeare is still taken seriously.
The seven crones featured are presented in the order that Shakespeare wrote them, which allows Skilbeck through Turret to demonstrate how the roles developed over time. And her knowledge (she is an Associate Teacher at RADA, specialising in directing Shakespeare) is the real gem in this production. While we're being entertained by these excerpts from Shakespeare, and some very funny jokes and asides, we are learning so much. About how the two duchesses, Gloucester and York, neatly bookend Richard II; how the move to indoor theatres in the Jacobean period allowed for more intimate scenes later in Shakespeare’s career; and insights into the “super-crone” Paullina, the ringmaster of The Winter’s Tale.
It's an eloquent response to Mirren's claim: there are great roles for older women in Shakespeare. You could argue that they're not meaty enough – after all, we got seven extracts in an hour, though I did wonder if we might get more depth from fewer. And I suspect it’s a show for the Shakespeare fan, as I got the most out of the parts I was already familiar with. But I left intrigued with others – such as the grand Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, a part that Skilbeck herself says she'd love to play.