Why the hell not?

Storme Toolis burst onto the national scene three years ago in BBC TVs New Tricks, one of the few disabled actors to appear on screen whose disability is not a feature of the plot. now the 23-year-old has taken on one of the most demanding roles in the shakespearean canon – in a production of which she is creative director and which is the subject of a forthcoming television documentary

Redefining Juliet
Tim Bowie and Storme Toolis as Romeo and Juliet

Playing Juliet is something I have always wanted to do. I knew it wasn’t a matter of talent, ambition or luck as other actors may find – the reality is that disabled actors like me have never even been considered for mainstream romantic roles, much less the iconic role of Juliet.

She represents a starting point in casting. You can’t get bigger than Juliet if you want to challenge the universal image of young beauty and romance on stage. If no one would let me get past the casting call, I had to do the casting myself. So I devised Redefining Juliet – a play which casts six different women as Juliet who would normally never get the role. It takes Shakespeare’s major speeches for his young heroine and interjects them with verbatim accounts written by each actor, highlighting how they are perceived by others as women who just can’t do romance and love. The actors challenge the conventional casting of people like them, whether they’re small, or fat, or black, or tall, or deaf. Or like me, in a wheelchair. We had our showcase at the Barbican and the making of the play is the subject of a BBC4 documentary on May 1, part of the BBC’s Shakespeare Festival.

Redefining Juliet uses the character of Juliet as a springboard to address a range of issues that women face in casting. In the play, we talk about body image, sexuality, the limitations placed on actors who are different in any way. Casting decisions are routinely made on your appearance – you need to have the right look for a role, you have to fit the part according to the conventions surrounding it. But that approach only serves to support preconceptions about what counts as sexy and who can be an object of desire.

The women who are believed to fit that description come from a very small stable. I’m fed up of size eight white women with shoulder length light brown hair getting all the young romantic leads, and Juliet in particular. I want to broaden the horizons of who can play Shakespeare’s most iconic heroine. I want to challenge why tall women don’t get to play vulnerable characters, why very small women aren’t seen as objects  of desire. Why the hell not? The most important thing about playing a lead Shakespearean character is that the audience believes in her and believes in how she feels.

We need to trust these audiences more. They have the capacity to be open-minded when we confront them. When they encounter a Juliet who doesn’t fit their ideals of beauty, it probably matters in their heads for the first few minutes. But if she does the job, if you’re convinced by her acting that she’s desirable and in love – she’s Juliet. If these actors can convince the audience they are fully committed to Juliet’s journey, then we’ve succeeded in telling her story.

When I looked at the text of Romeo and Juliet I found that any physical description of Juliet is absent. She could look like any of our diverse actors. Shakespeare himself has nothing to say about her appearance – he doesn’t care whether she’s tall or short, fat or thin, white or black. (Remember, this supposedly waif-like woman would have been played by a man anyway.) The important thing about the character of Juliet is that she’s beautiful, driven and feisty. The women I cast in Redefining Juliet are all of these things.

I knew Juliet was a part for me, but the only way I can make that happen is by putting on the play myself. The sad reality is, in the current state of casting in our industry, all six of us who are Juliet in Redefining Juliet will probably never get to play this romantic lead again. But by claiming Juliet for all those fine women actors who’d never usually get past the casting call, I hope casting directors’ and audiences’ eyes are opened to the possibilities that women of all sorts of difference can play sexy, desirable, romantic roles. We can be all of these things. Just let us act.

Redefining Juliet - So You Think You Know Who Can Play Juliet? Think Again! will be broadcast on BBC4 on May 1 as part of the Shakespeare Festival.
Twitter @redefinejuliet


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