Joan Field leads a double life (or maybe even a triple life). Her day job is that of herb-woman, out in the fields at dawn picking simples that she hawks in a basket to the country folk eager for natural remedies to treat all manner of illnesses. But she also moonlights as an actor, treading the boards of Shakespeare’s shiny new Globe Theatre under the name of John Field, as one of the King’s Men. Her third life? Since women are banned from appearing on stage, only men can play female characters in plays – and as an actual woman interpreting roles such as Ophelia, Kate and Viola, Joan /John has a unique insight that no male actor can match.
But there are risks. Big risks: if she is discovered, she faces being tied to the ducking stool and undergoing the Elizabethan equivalent of wateboarding for unwomanly – and unnatural – behaviour. (Her dilemma finds much later echoes in another story of a woman paying the price for encroaching on a male preserve, that of Rose Reilly, Footballer.)
Ophelia, Herb-woman, the third title in English Theatre Milan’s pocket season at the Teatro Gerolamo, is exquisitely written and directed by EMT’s Maggie Rose, who also holds the Chair of British Theatre Studies at Milan State University. It stars Australian actor Elena Pellone of the Persona Theatre company and features Gilberta Crispino of the Centro Europeo Teatro e Carcere (European Centre for Theatre and Prison, CETEC).
Starting with in-the-round staging, evoking the original Shakespearean performances at the Globe, Gilberta delivered a moving prologue, walking down the aisle of the theatre, interacting with the audience.
When Elena appears in the guise of Joan, the herb-woman, she gradually leads us ever-deeper into her strange life that spans the contradictions of late 16th and early 17th English society, especially those of gender and class. As a combined trader in herbs and a “wise woman”, Joan offers the closest thing to medical treatment that ordinary folk can afford. In fact, she lampoons the puffed up, pompous physicians who look down on her both as a country herbalist and as a woman.
Taking her cue from Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a role that is intertwined with the current play like a sprig of one of her herbs woven into a garland, Joan extols the virtues of the various plants she has harvested. For a nursing mother whose children are going hungry, she recommends fennel seeds to boost the production of milk, while she hints darkly that rue can procure an abortion for an underage mother.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. In one of the funniest scenes, we see Joan / Elena’s transformation from herb-woman into lusty, swaggering young blood, John. Like many a rockstar employing a strategically placed rolled-up pair of socks, there is something decidedly dodgy about her codpiece. She even fashions a makeshift beard from the long hair she keeps tucked under her hat. Sword in hand and pipe in mouth she revels in the freedom and sense of entitlement that being a man gives her.
Pellone’s use of the stage – and the theatre itself – breaks just about every wall going: at one point, she even dives into a box at the side of the stage in her attempt to evade capture by the moral guardians of 16th century London.
At the Globe, Joan – now John – fails to impress Shakespeare with her very shaky grasp of Ophelia’s lines that she should have by heart. For an actor, pretending to not remember lines must be a lot more difficult than just reciting them, although she pulls it off in a highly believable way. Once she has warmed up and entered the zone, we are given a glimpse of her acting “straight” in the roles both of Ophelia and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.
The excellent live lute music by Francesco Motta throughout the play provides an accompaniment to Elena’s singing as well as interludes that help to make the transition between scenes.
This was an unusual and original take on the world of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England seen from a woman’s point of view. Mixing merriment and a menacing sense of danger, the play touches on a number of contemporary issues without sounding polemical or preachy.
Hats off to English Theatre Milan – and Maggie Rose in particular – for serving up a rich and varied feast of acting talent and theatrical magic with its mini-season of plays in English (supported by media partner Easy Milano). From Oscar Wilde to Rose Reilly to Ophelia, this has been a treat for audiences and will be remembered for a long time. I’m looking forward to future helpings of such delicious and highly entertaining fare.
Robert Dennis, EasyMilano
Robert Dennis is a writer and Business English teacher based in Milan. He has been teaching for other 30 years both in the UK and in Italy. A long-time collaborator with John Peter Sloan, Robert published Business English (Gribaudo) in 2020. The book was launched with “Il Sole 24 Ore” and sold in newsstands throughout Italy. Robert has a website for people who want to learn Business English: Pay As You Learn.com. The site features keywords and phrases, audio and exercises to help professionals improve their language skills. A graduate in English from Oxford University, Robert is also a translator and a “buongustaio” who loves Italian food!