THE shadow of Margaret Thatcher looms over York Shakespeare Project’s all-female version of Coriolanus at Friargate Theatre, York, from tomorrow (November 28).

Hull freelance theatre director Madeleine O’Reilly guest-directs YSP in a modern-day rendition of Shakespeare’s tragic tale of power, politics and manipulation.

“When I was thinking about the play and the character of Coriolanus, and because of the all-female element I wanted to bring to it, I immediately thought of Margaret Thatcher: a strong leader, who isn’t necessarily popular and divides people,” says Madeleine.

“We’ve not gone all eighties with Thatcher’s pearls and handbag, but we’ve definitely given a nod to it, because we’ve been discussing in rehearsals how we as a society view women in leadership.

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Coriolanus director Madeleine O'Reilly

“That applies not only to Margaret Thatcher but to the latest American election when they went for Trump rather than Hillary Clinton. Trump went on the personal attack, and by being restrained in response, Hillary Clinton looked weak, but the problem is that female politicians are judged as much for being women as for their politics and I’m not sure that’s the case for men.”

Analysing how Margaret Thatcher presented herself, Madeleine says: “She had voice training from Sir Laurence Olivier; her speech writer was a playwright, so her ‘The lady’s not for turning’ line came from a theatre writer; she became more tyrannical the longer she was in charge.

“She had to play hard with the Miners’ Strike, the Falklands War, the IRA, but as soon as that time passed, she was supplanted.”

Reflecting on women MPs still adding up to only 32 per cent of the House of Commons, Madeleine says: “Celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage, this production puts women at the forefront of this classic drama, but one of the things we talked about in rehearsals was the ‘power model’ and whether that’s been written with men in mind. Could it be re-written to be more equal, or otherwise will women still have to operate in a world dominated by male expectations?”

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Getting to grips: Abi McLoughlin and Emma Summers rehearse a fight scene for York Shakespeare Project’s Coriolanus. Picture: John Saunders

Broadening her thoughts on wanting to direct Coriolanus, Madeleine says: “It’s an amazing opportunity as I’ve sort of fallen in love with Coriolanus: it’s bloody; it’s political; it’s fascinating to think that in 1605 Shakespeare was writing about the politics of the people versus the state, and bearing in mind where we are now, with Brexit, Trump, Putin, I can’t think of a more timely play, asking: ‘Do we trust people with values or do we trust people who can compromise and potentially flatter us.

“What Shakespeare does in the characters of the citizens is show not only how divided they are but how easily they can be manipulated. It’s important that we have the vote and we use it, but then there’s the question of being exploited by who’s giving us information or the likeability of the politician putting the message across, and how we judge the credibility of their character; whether they’re friendly; whether they flatter.”

Madeleine continues: “The themes in the play, about who rules and who should rule, are universal and very modern. The question as to who will rule – the leader, the people or the Senate – could be asked in the United States this autumn. This production raises the question, is it better to be true to yourself, or to compromise for the good of the state?”

Madeleine has noted how casting an all-female production has had an impact on Shakespeare’s text. “It’s been exciting that because women now tell the story, they take ownership of it and that’s powerful. Just having women playing these characters and saying these words, it brings a power to the language, and the very act of women taking over this story has political presence.”

York Shakespeare Project presents Coriolanus at Friargate Theatre, York, November 28 to December 1. Tickets for the 7.30pm evening shows and 2.30pm Saturday matinee are on sale at £14, concessions £10, on 01904 613000 or at /