Gender-blind Shakespeare: classic roles are being taken by women

Published in The Independent on April 21, 2016

King Lear. Henry V. Malvolio. Three of the greatest Shakespeare parts a man could ever hope to play? Think again – for these juicy roles are soon be taken by women, in what looks like a watershed for gender-blind casting.

Glenda Jackson, Michelle Terry and Tamsin Grieg are stepping into those masculine shoes, in productions that challenge the ongoing, endemic gender imbalance on British theatre (which is certainly not helped by the sheer volume of Shakespeare staged).

Glenda Jackson sure knows how to make a (re-)entrance: after 25 years away from the stage, she’s back as King Lear at the Old Vic in October, directed by Deborah Warner. I daresay that her intervening career in politics (she was the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn until last year) will add richness to her Lear, but more attention has been given to the fact that such an ‘Everest part’ is going to a woman. Warner has, however, said the production will not be “an exploration of gender”: this is simply a chance for an excellent actress (one who’s publically bemoaned the lack of meaty, all-ages parts for women) to take on a titanic role.

Before that we have Michelle Terry as Henry V. Terry is one of the finest young Shakespearean actors in the UK – but where do you go when you’ve already nailed plum lady-roles like Rosalind, Titania and Beatrice? Giving her a shot at the charismatic, multi-faceted, rhetoric-spouting Harry is a seriously smart move.

She will, I’m told, play him very much as a man in the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre production in June. Still, from comments by director Robert Hastie, it sounds like this cross-casting is still deliberately lending a topical spin. “Henry V is a study in leadership and who we think is entitled to lead,” he has said, also pointing out that we’re due the results of a Ministry of Defence consultation about putting female soldiers on the front line this summer. He might also have mentioned the US Presidential race, currently providing regular reminders of how many people simply don’t want someone with ovaries in charge of their country.

Malvolio is quite a different beast: the steward of Twelfth Night is a priggish puritan with serious delusions of grandeur, in love with his mistress. Anyone who’s watched Tamsin Grieg onstage, or on TV, will know she can make both righteous indignation and physical awkwardness blissfully funny – and there isn’t really a female equivalent in Shakespeare, so hoorah for the National for introducing a female version, Malvolia.

It’ll also add one more layer of gender and sexuality playfulness to a plot already ripe with it, featuring women falling for women dressed up as men. Shakespeare may have partly been fond of that plot line because women weren’t allowed on the stage in his day, but a happy side-effect for modern audiences is that the plays can easily take extra queering, because there’s so much gender, sexuality and identity confusion anyway. Shakespeare works exceptionally well in a society that is – as we seem to be – rapidly re-calibrating its understanding of gender binaries; if we perceive gender as performative and fluid anyway, then there’s everything to play for.

And the trend for gender-blind Shakespeare has been swelling over recent years – spearheaded by Phyllida Lloyd, and her ongoing series of all-female Shakespeares. She pioneered this with The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe back in 2003; Janet McTeer, who played a dashingly sexy Petruchio, revives the part this summer in New York with Lloyd. We’ve also had Maxine Peake as Hamlet and Pippa Nixon as the Bastard in King John and Ariel in the Tempest, while Merely Theatre are currently touring a gender-blind A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V, and Omidaze Production has offered an all-female Richard III and Henry VI to Welsh audiences.

But aside from seeing great actresses in great parts – and exploring the effect gender-swapped casting has on these stories – many theatres are casting women to deliberately to counter inequality in the industry. Snapshot research by Tonic theatre in 2014 found that across the UK’s top 20 Arts Council funded theatres, only 37 per cent of parts were played by women, dropping to 29 per cent in the West End. It was a wake-up call, with (some) theatre heads – Daniel Evans at Sheffield, Rufus Norris at the National and the incoming Emma Rice at the Globe – making an open commitment to gender parity.

Is this rash of gender-blind productions a promising sign then – or just indication of how far we still have to go? Possibly – depressingly – the latter. A recent survey, conducted by The Stage, found 48 per cent of Brits are against a woman playing Hamlet. It’s a shocking stat – especially given the rich historical tradition of women playing that part.

And, being cynical for a moment, there’s also the fact that it happens to be a certain anniversary this year – 400 years since his death, 2016 is saturated with Shakespeare. This spate of cross-casting might just be a way to grab attention in an overcrowded market. A sellable gimmick rather than a genuine paradigm shift.

There’s something rather cheering about the idea of cross-casting making a show more marketable, however. Hopefully, such eyes-on-the-prize casting will move things along, sending ripples throughout the industry and helping to ensure the gender-balance question is always on the table. We need to get to the point where, when asking who the best person for a part is, both halves of the population are considered.

Where next?