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Ankur Bahl: Can Emma Rice give one of Shakespeare's best female parts to a man?

Actor Ankur Bahl will take on Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream this summer, playing her as a gay man called Helenus, he talks through how Emma Rice came to cast him

Shakespeare's Globe by night
© Pete Le May

"Top Secret: Emma Rice wants to meet you for Dream. It's Helena. Played as a gay man. Interested?"

The only possible response to my agent's question last November: "Hell yes!" I meet Emma in her ground-floor, boudoir-cum-office just outside the Globe's stage door.

It's her temporary home as Artistic Director Designate until she moves into the main building when she officially takes over the post. We sit on benches at the giant wooden dining table that operates as her meeting space. The kettle is on; model mock-ups of sets are dotted around the room. I also take in the red couch, a new Mac just out of its box on her desk, fairy lights, and a whiteboard with future planning dates.

After a warm hug, she tells me: "This is not an audition, I just wanted to see if this idea is even a possibility."

I'm sure Emma means to set me at ease, but to my neurotic actor brain it feels like the whole success of the idea rests on my performance.

We sit and read the play, every scene that includes Helena, or mentions her. We discuss in depth how the character and the language changes if Helena is a man. Perhaps a name change to Helenus?

Two moments, which bookend the play, really resonate with both of us in this new interpretation. When Helenus says:

And therefore is love said to be a child
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled. (I. i. 238-239)

And when Demetrius returns to Helenus saying

The object and the pleasure of mine eye,
Is only Helenus. To [him], my lord,
Was I betrothed ere I saw Hermia;
But like a sickness did I loathe this food.
But, as in health come to my natural taste (IV. i. 169-173)

We both have goosebumps and silent tears at the tragedy and hope of this love. It's accurate to the coming out stories of so many of the people we hold dear. If only going forward with this exciting proposition were as easy as changing a few pronouns.

First challenge: Emma has made a public commitment to redressing the gender imbalance in Shakespeare. Can she give one of his best female parts to a man? Second challenge: Demetrius is drugged by Oberon, but the spell is never lifted. Are we arguing that the drug makes him gay?

The answers are seemingly simple.

Actor Ankur Bahl

More than half the cast will be women, including Puck and the Mechanicals; making gender balance a priority doesn't mean ring-fencing parts, it's about including gender conversations in artistic decision-making.

Further, Oberon's spells over Titania and Lysander make them fall in love with the next thing they see, which means they need to be lifted out of the spells to return to their truths. Demetrius' spell is different, it enables him to recognize his natural, true love, the spell emboldens him to claim it and treasure it. This is not a spell that needs breaking.

As we say goodbye, Emma says: "Nothing is decided, but don't take work for next summer."

By Ankur Bahl

Ankur Bahl will be playing Helenus in Emma Rice's A Midsummer Night's Dream, opening 30 April.