On Friday and Saturday, Mia Georgina Hull ’17 presented her theatre honors project, Presume Not That I Am The Thing I Was, a performance piece titled after an excerpt from one of King Henry IV’s speeches in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV.
Hull only began to speak text about halfway through the piece. As the audience entered, she repeated a series of movements over and over in different positions on the stage. The stage itself was a wooden rectangle, with a wood and leather chair in the center, surrounded by chicken wire that was adorned with a mishmash of patinated household objects, reminding me of a domestic iron throne.
Hull was simply costumed in the beginning of the piece, in a white t-shirt with sheer leggings. As the performance progressed, she slowly and uncomfortably removed her leggings, then shuffled across the stage to a pile of clothes and put on a pair of tweed men’s trousers. Hull then walked around the stage, experimenting with a loping gait, hips thrust forward, back slouched. To those who know Hull personally, this was entirely unlike the way she carries herself normally – Hull has the grace and poise of a classically trained dancer, so the audience (which was composed mainly of Hull’s professors and friends) found great joy and playfulness in her actions. After continuing to play with her gait, Hull approached a pile of tennis balls, two of which she put in the front of her trousers to simulate genitalia. This warranted multiple chuckles from the audience. She then threw a black men’s jacket, similar to a Carhartt coat, over her head, adjusted it and then wrapped a pair of boots, tied at the laces, around her neck. This choice possessed an air of danger to it, since it seemed that the laces could choke her. She knelt, then shuffled across the stage and upstage, then slowly removed her head from the coat/boot amalgam, leaving what appeared to be an exoskeleton on the stage. This created another body on the stage, which Hull tried to imitate, throwing her legs up over her head in a splayed version of the plow yoga pose, then squatting and tilting her head to the left while her arms contorted to mimic the folds of the coat.
The silence of the piece was broken when Hull finally spoke, saying, “I know you … I know you …,” – a phrase that mingled performance with reality, since she really did know us all. In fact, it was very unlikely that a person who did not know Hull personally and had reserved a ticket beforehand would have gotten into the full house.
From here, Hull played with text from a few of Shakespeare’s history plays, sitting on the chair and ruminating on the Dauphin’s mockery of King Henry V (the Dauphin sends the king tennis balls), then standing on the arms of the chair and in a booming voice calling the men of England to action in the famous “St. Crispin’s Day” speech. At one point, a closet door opened, and hundreds of tennis balls poured out (coordinated and thrown by lighting designer Jack Scaletta ’18) while loud music played and lights flashed. All the while Hull danced, at first frantically and then slowly, as if suspended in time. She then, for the first time in the piece, stepped off of the platform she had been performing on and recited Richard II’s monologue: “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world.” Hull, after such a demanding and broad performance, spoke plainly and earnestly. The way she presented the speech was entirely consistent with her quotidian interactions, providing a stark contrast to the piece up until that point. The act of stepping off the stage stripped away the veneer of machismo that she had taken on during the first speeches, making the choice of the Richard II text even more interesting. Richard II lacks the bravado and braggadocio of leaders like Henry V, and his possible homosexuality is a commonly proposed theatrical hypothesis (just as is Ophelia’s pregnancy).
Hull’s exploration of gender and what a woman must become to speak these speeches comes at a very important time in terms of identity and gender politics. Women have been playing men’s roles in Shakespeare plays for decades, but what does it mean if a role matches the gender of the performer no matter what the tradition of the canon says? Hull’s thesis left me with more questions than I arrived with, proving an absolute success.
Mia Georgina Hull ’17 explores gender identity and politics in her theatre honors project, ‘Presume Not That I Am The Thing I Was.’ Photo courtesy of David Dashiell