Illustration by Kathryn Rathke

Rosa Joshi brings the War of the Roses to Seattle Shakespeare Company.

For centuries the bloody war between the Houses of York and Lancaster, which ripped 15th century England apart in their quest for the crown, has fascinated the Western imagination. One hundred years after the dust settled (sort of), Shakespeare wrote a bevy of plays chronicling the political and personal carnage of the War of the Roses; now director Rosa Joshi is bringing his Henry VI trilogy to Seattle Shakespeare Company. Bring Down the House is a two-part adaptation of Henry VI which she co-adapted (with Kate Wisniewski), full of Taiko drumming and choreographed by Alice Gosti. The adaptation, which runs in rotating rep starting this month, is a co-production of Seattle Shakes and the all-female upstart crow collective, which Joshi co-founded. We talked to Joshi about the shuddering relevance of Henry VI, the importance of female-first theatre and more. 

Why these plays, why now?
The War of the Roses is about deep factionalization in society, about the House of York and the House of Lancaster—you entrenched in your side based on the rose that you chose, and the allegiance you made. The deep political divisions in contemporary American society are what make this story of medieval English kings resonate for us today. It’s the political badge I wear: I’m With Her. Make America Great Again. In the plays, the political infighting and this deep entrenching creates a moral vacuum in which a despot can rise. So there are things in this play that seem more urgent to me now.

I’m also struck by how Shakespeare captures the cynicism of leaders, the cynicism of politicians who are driven by personal ambitions and the consequences that has on ordinary people. At the core of Henry VI is a massive civil war that is fought for personal political ambitions and a drive for power. But I’m less about the history, which I can definitely geek out over, and more about these stories as cautionary tales.

How long has this adaptation been in the works?
Around three years. Kate Wisniewski, who’s my co-adapter, first sent me an email as she was sitting backstage during Richard II in 2013—you get a lot of backstage time when you’re a woman in a history play. She was reading the Henry VI plays and said, we should look at these plays for upstart crow. So I re-read them and knew immediately that they were fantastic material for an all-female cast.

Do you approach adaptation with a feminist lens? Or is it about storytelling that is then informed by the all-female casting?
We don’t change any of the genders of the characters in the play and we operate with binary genders. The male characters stay male, the female characters stay female. We don’t hide our hair; we don’t wear beards or fake mustaches. We don’t play in drag. We focus on playing character honestly. But this is a male-driven political world, and putting 16 women on stage to take on this visceral play with great intellect, physicality and emotion brings the play to life in a new way.

Any time you put [only] one gender on stage it makes you look at gender differently. People will often comment that, I forget that they’re all women. Then they’re suddenly reminded that that’s a woman playing a man, and that jarring realization makes us question our assumptions about gender, our implicit biases, our expectations about how women should believe, what makes for strong leadership.

Why is all-female work important to you?
There’s the artistic perspective which has to do with looking at gender and thinking about how gender operates in the world and how we can comment on that or highlight that or reveal that through the plays. There’s also a political reason that has to do with equity for female artists in theatre.

As a director, is there a difference in a rehearsal room that is all or primarily female?
There is a sense of strength and community because it is rare and therefore special. Sixteen men and three women in a room doing Shakespeare, we’re used to that. I’ve done those plays and I love doing those plays. But being in a room where it’s 16 women working on a classical play—that never happens. That lends a vitality to the process, and a space where the female voice feels super privileged.