Epicoene PREVIEW

Epicoene PREVIEW

Director, Mark Holland, discusses his approach to directing Ben Jonson's renaissance comedy, Epicoene. Please be aware that this preview contains key plot spoilers.


Epicoene is a play where the title character is, at the play’s conclusion, revealed to be a boy. But for the duration of the play, both the characters and the audience have been led to believe this character is a woman.

The term Epicene, from which the title character’s name is derived, is a renaissance term for a state in between masculinity and femininity. And whilst this hints at modern understandings of gender identity, the character of Epicoene never directly addresses their own gender and is instead puppeteered through different social environments throughout the play.

Who is Epicoene?

Epicoene is a character who has been trafficked and is living with a man called John Dawe. There are local rumours about the 'silent woman' he is keeping in his house. Simultaneously another character, Morose, sets out on a nationwide search for a silent wife. The play goes through a number of twists and turns but what ultimately matters is that Epicoene is set-up with Morose because a marriage between them is, in the play’s world, legally impossible, something which might not be true if the character was trans or genderqueer.

Whilst the play could be staged as a trans narrative about a character whose transness is abused and cruelly exposed, there is also a metatheatrical element at play which I think complicates this and roots the play in homosexuality over gender queerness. In renaissance performance, where all characters were played by men, the revelation that a female character - who the audience accepts is a woman - is actually a man forced into a costume as part of a prank, tricks not only the character who is fooled, but also the audience. They are, in a way, shamed for their belief in the form. And this production has a responsibility to respond to this theatrical gesture.

This gesture is one which sees all gender as performative. The play is ultimately arguing that Epicoene’s femininity is a costume. And it would be wrong of me to suggest that is the same for trans people. With this in mind, I could have tried a more radical intervention with the play, but I don’t think it’s my place, as a non-genderqueer creative, to do that. What Jonson was doing was subverting his contemporary theatrical norm to play a trick on the audience. In some ways, gender was just a prop to do this with.

How are we staging Epicoene?

What we are doing with this production of Epicoene is creating a stage world in which everyone plays the character best suited to them, regardless of gender. I believe this to be the Cambridge norm but is something which is shocking halted at this play’s conclusion. The audience is supposed to be surprised by the revelation that Epicoene is not a woman because in this production, we have created a world where a male-presenting actor can play a female-presenting or a non-binary character.  

To a degree, the actors leave their real-life identities at the door. Those are the stakes Jonson creates. However, what this also does is create certain ambiguities about the genders of the characters being played. It often isn’t clear if a character is a particular gender because, as the play progresses, it becomes less important. This production’s attempt to dissolve these certainties is, I hope, a way of engaging both with Jonson and more modern dialogues, and something we emphasise in the final scene when actors play multiple roles simultaneously before the hammer comes down on Epicoene being a boy, and a boy only. 

Epicoene is a play about the potential of theatre being inhibited, and a story about queer abuse and self-denial. It is about the social masks we adopt and the roles we are forced to play. I don’t think Jonson is writing a genderqueer character. Although we never explicitly spell it out, and want to leave room for varied interpretations, I see Epicoene a ‘boy’ forced into drag for the abusive entertainment of the men in the play. I also think, in a way, that the fact that the character is simply labelled ‘Epicoene’ comes across as a bit of a joke, and a joke name given to Epicoene by those around him, which suggests he lacks agency in the way he is able to present himself. Again, this isn’t to say that I’m trying to erase gender queerness from the play, but the access we get to the characters, and the meta-structure imposed upon it, inform my presentation of it as a story primarily of trafficking and sexual repression.

Therefore, this production is more interested in the fragile masculinity at the heart of it. In the same way Jonson quotes from contemporary news stories, this production is using the aesthetics and iconography of multiple celebrities, including influencers such as Andrew Tate. Part of this depiction seeks to undermine and unpack their misogyny.

How does Morose play into this interpretation?

The big question this leaves though, is how does the husband not realise who Epicoene really is?

The play's discussion of gender as an aesthetic might make it feel like Epicoene is the butt of the play's joke. Not to mention that Epicoene is a fairly minor character, and there isn't enough material for the character to develop a particularly nuanced picture, especially when the entire revelation is pretty much just the line that it's a 'boy'. In reality, Morose and Epicoene don't have time to have a sexual relationship so he wouldn't have learned of Epicoene's gender (moreover, there is a section which explores the potential that Morose is celibate, which might have informed the initial plot). Typically read as an old man, averse to noise and a bit of a Scrooge figure, I have remodelled the character as, rather than somebody who hates noise, as somebody who loves silence.

He is incredibly rich but also vulnerable, investing in expensive medical and spa treatments (like Bryan Johnson). This mental fragility makes him especially vulnerable to having his inheritance be abused, which makes it work in the original framework. However, this man, who locks himself away and requests a silent wife, someone who won’t speak to him or speak out about their relationship, looks to me a lot like a closeted homosexuality.

This reading, therefore, sees Epicoene and Morose, through the most bizarre of circumstances, find each other and a sort of hidden perfection which is cruelly stripped away at the end when Epicoene is outed as a ‘boy’, preventing them living under the guise of heteronormativity.

As part of this, it is important to say that we’ve worked to make sure we don’t have too many targets, or that the play doesn't just become a parade of scenes of abuse. It’s a satire, and, come the end, the balance is restored and Epicoene is vindicated.

Epicoene runs at the ADC Theatre from Tuesday 30 April to Saturday 04 May.

Tickets are on sale now here.