A 16th century Feminine Mystique
From the perspective of a KES English teacher, watching Edward’s Boys plays is a revelation, not least because smaller pupils of my acquaintance have swapped their KES blazers for a Shottery blouse and skirt, but because they reveal just what real interpretation is about: performance.
It strikes me that The Woman in the Moon is a text particularly suited to this purpose. At its core, it is of course an exploration of femininity and what it means to be a woman; these are undoubtedly questions young men at a boys’ school need to explore. But that’s an easy response- and this play contains depth far beyond a simple exploration of gender. It brings into question the whole concept of interpretation whilst being strange, mystical, stereotyped- yes— but also undeniably cheeky, fresh, and fantastically fun.
What the play puts centre stage is the performance of femininity, both on the part of Pandora herself and in the play as a whole. Pandora is the dramatic and aesthetic focus of the play, holding the male characters in thrall. When Pandora first arrives on stage, she is bandaged up: pure, white, innocent, and like a newborn foal, she is unable to walk. What Joe Pocknell acted so well was her sense of being fearful and suspicious, not at being a woman in man’s play (it is, after all, Mother Nature who creates her) but in being untried, untested and wholly without experience of the world. Set in Utopia and in a dream world, what we are presented with here is a brand new type of being, unsullied by experience.
It is at this point that opinions on the play might diverge, and, indeed, the play has been interpreted simultaneously as a feminist manifesto and as misogynistic diatribe. Once she has been created, Pandora falls under the influence of each of the planets in turn before finally selecting the moon as her chosen planet. This sounds simple enough, but audience members are left asking some uneasy questions: is Pandora affected more by the planets than the male characters? Is her sense of agency removed because she is so affected by the planets? Does it make a difference that she actively chooses the moon? Is the play suggesting that women are fickle and – more uncomfortably- that they are lunatic?
This is where the setting of the play becomes so crucial; set in 1967, the play embraces the summer of love and the hazy drug-induced blurring of moral questions it encompasses. Equally, as Pandora gains experience of the world, she uses it to her advantage; she learns the ways and tricks of men. Again, Joe Pocknell’s acting, and his insolent, knowing glances to the audience, reveal Pandora’s awareness of the effect she has on men: this is a performance of female sexual power to the detriment of male pride…
But the 1967 setting allows another darker interpretation too: as Pandora is ultimately rejected by the shepherds, frustrated that she will not accept their advances and has been playing them off against each other, the play advances the same kind of moral ambiguity as the 1960s, where women, though liberated sexually, still suffered backlash against the very behaviours they had been encouraged in. Another irony is that it is Stesias, Pandora’s initially lovestruck but later furious husband, ends the play rejecting the character who has been the object of all attention. Equally, the fact that Gunophilus leaves the stage realising his genuine hurt at being spurned by Pandora means the play ends without the uncomplicated ease of comedy. For all the balloons and song, it is clear that Utopia is not as perfect as it appears.
So if this play doesn’t contain the feminist agenda we have come to expect in a 21st century play, or the casual chauvinism we often bemoan in plays which fell out of critical fashion several hundred years ago, don’t be surprised: this is why The Woman in the Moon is so fascinating. Like Pandora herself, it teases and tricks its viewers, one moment deconstructing male pride, the other simply running stark raving mad. Perhaps the difficulty of interpreting such a play, and establishing what it might ‘mean’ is best summed up in the kind of leading (or damning) question a woman might ask a man: ‘I don’t know, dear, what did you think I meant?’
Amaryllis Barton, King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon