One of the perceived bigger shifts in the world of drama recently has been the move towards (so-called) gender blind casting. This generalised term seems to have somewhat different definitions depending on the particular production but may be categorised as:
- men and/or women cast in roles that do not match their own gender, but play them as written, or
- casting women in male roles that are then played as women or vice versa.
A couple of years ago I saw two Shakespeares in close proximity in which both definitions were employed – see Every Inch A King?.
The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe (among others) have done much to flatten out the notion of gendered appearances in the Bard’s works; indeed the former have just announced plans for a completely gender reversed production of The Taming Of The Shrew next year. Gradually the trend for increased gender flexibility has worked its way into the mainstream to the point where it is almost becoming de rigueur. What is increasingly noticeable, though, is that these once radical casting decisions have become less about stunt casting and more about true integration. Indeed in this last quarter of 2018 I have hardly seen a production in which some gender blind casting aspects have not been conspicuous by their presence.
Perhaps the most truly noticeable equitable casting ratio was demonstrated back in September in Tower Theatre’s Henry V. Traditionally this has been a play with very few opportunities for actresses – just brief appearances for Mistress Quickly and a couple of scenes for Princess Katherine and her handmaid, Alice. In the main though it is known as one of Shakepeare’s most male dominated plays. However, in this production the cast of 14 was split exactly between male and female performers and in truth after a minute or two of the performance it wasn’t something that even caused the slightest misgivings. For the company too it was an excellent way to demonstrate a commitment to equality in its inaugural production in its new home. For a fuller review click here.
Though not quite as full on, the current season of Pinter “shorts” has also taken the opportunity to mix things up a little. In Pinter One the brief sketch Precisely featured Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn as a couple of well- heeled businessmen and this was balanced by Pinter Three’s equally brief That’s All featuring Lee Evans, Keith Allen and Tom Edden as a gossiping trio of ladies. I think there was a degree of gender political comment in these choices (especially the former) though the pieces were so swiftly gone that any deeper meanings were essentially lost in translation. More thoughts on the Pinter shorts can be found here.
In late November I took in the live broadcast of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III being performed in Nottingham. I fully expected this to be cast along traditional lines which would have meant few female contributions. However, the decision had been taken to cast most of the king’s doctors as female (playing men) and this served to show them as a united tribe scrabbling for supremacy with their various crackpot theories. However, it was noticeable that the main medical role (and, ultimately the king’s saviour) still went to a male performer, though I guess if a regional theatre has the ever dependable Adrian Scarborough on board then it is going to ensure it uses his talents fully. So, in all, an interesting idea that perhaps didn’t go quite far enough. As an aside the central role, as performed by Mark Gatiss was superbly done.
Perhaps the most radical reshaping of a piece I’ve seen recently has been the much lauded production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company – another directorial triumph for Marianne Elliot (following, among others, War Horse and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime). In this reworking the central character, male Bobby, has become female Bobbie, his various girlfriends have become her various boyfriends and neurotic, just-about-to-be-wed Amy has become neurotic just-about-to-be-wed Jamie. I’d previously seen this show done “traditionally” in a production by Sam Mendes and had thought it would be impossible for it to be bettered. However, this latest incarnation knocked that earlier one into the proverbial cocked hat and in truth I now can’t imagine it being done any other way. The central gender change makes perfect sense and, indeed, the pressure on the main character to marry and reproduce becomes far more telling. The only slight misgiving I felt was that it removes one of the showstopper numbers “Not Getting Married” from a female performer but this was a small price to pay to achieve the greater aim of reworking this classic musical for the 21st century.
My most recent dramatic foray was to the Barbican for the RSC’s latest version of the Merry Wives of Windsor. The RSC has clear policies about expanding the number of roles for women (“increasing representation in acting companies and creative teams, without imposing hard and fast restrictions, and taking action on gender pay gaps in any given team”) so it came as no surprise that some changes had taken place. Of course (and unusually for Shakespeare) as two of the central roles are already female there was less action to be taken. As the titular wives Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly rightly dominated, running rings round a massive David Troughton as Falstaff. In the supporting team the once male Host of the Garter has become a leopard-print clad female hostess. Although the gender change would have been one I would happily have instituted myself and made perfect sense, I have to admit I found Katy Brittain’s performance somewhat aggravating. Making less sense was the transposition of the quite obviously male character of Bardolph into a female barmaid (Charlotte Josephine). However, the character has rather minimal appearances so it did not make all that much difference.
So, do I approve of this development? Well, in some ways it’s not that new an idea. The Elizabethan tendency to disapprove of actresses meant that young men regularly played female roles and Shakespeare, for one, made much plot use of boys playing girls pretending to be boys (As You Like It, Twelfth Night). And of course we’ve had pantomime dames and principal boys for ages! Having been heavily involved in the generally gender blind casting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation in 2016 I think I can speak with some authority. The most universally admired performance came from the wonderful Lucy Ellinson as the traditionally male Puck. In our own mechanical’s team our Peter Quince was the redoubtable Maria and in two of the other teams the role of Bottom went to Lisa and Becky both of whom brought many different nuances to their performance. So yes, I do heartily approve. That said, as with so much else, it depends on the production and the points being made and themes highlighted. It can undoubtedly be awful – one of the first examples I can recall seeing some time ago was Vanessa Redgrave playing Prospero in a production of The Tempest at the Globe. This was truly dreadful and, in my opinion, set the cause back some years. However, as in the case of Company, it can be truly edifying and enlightening bringing a fresh perspective to tried and trusted formulae and providing increased opportunities to performers. I’d always thought that my chance to appear in The Importance of Being Earnest had long since evaporated. But if David Suchet can give us his Lady Bracknell perhaps there’s hope for me yet.