Ever since I started frequenting the Globe in 2016 and ramped up my Shakespeare intake, I’ve found myself embroiled in arguments over casting – more specifically, gender switches. I know I should leave well alone in the majority of cases, but it can be really hard not to challenge some of the ignorance people spout; I find it even more incomprehensible when other women can’t get their heads around the idea – why don’t they want actresses to be given the opportunity to expands their CVs? Or gain a new insight into a particular character? Shakespeare isn’t some religious text that should be kept sacrosanct & untouched, it’s just a set of plays to be staged. Bloody good ones, but simply plays nonetheless.
For day one of #MindTheBard I ended up watching Maxine Peake in the title role of the Royal Exchange’s production of Hamlet (I’ve had that DVD for over a year and not got round to watching it!), before heading out to the Globe to revisit this year’s Henry V with Sarah Amankwah as the eponymous king. Both productions had a few other gender switches in either character or actor – such as Polonius to Polonia, and numerous genderblind casting decisions in Henry V – so it couldn’t be a better time to think about the history of gender in casting, as well as the knock-on effects of switching things up a bit.
You’ll probably be aware that in Shakespeare’s day the roles were all taken on by men & boys, as women were barred from gracing the stage until the reign of Charles II, when figures such as Nell Gwynn made their name. Even back in the 1700s women began taking on traditionally male parts, with Charlotte Charke (1713-1760) the earliest known female Hamlet, and the spirit Ariel became exclusively female throughout the 18th & 19th centuries. Sarah Bernhardt also famously played the Prince of Denmark (the first woman to do so on screen, in 1900), and many other female actors have taken on this well-known character over the years – Michelle Terry at the Globe last year, and Cush Jumbo will do the same thing at the Young Vic next year.
Back in the 1800s, Charlotte Cushman played Romeo (opposite her sister, Susan) and also took on roles such as Iago & Hamlet, amongst other traditionally male parts. Heading onwards to the 20th century, and the Shakespeare Hut put on performances of scenes from Henry V by young actresses, whilst the suffragists selected inspiring female characters to portray alongside their political action. More recently, Tamsin Greig became Malvolia in Twelfth Night at the National, I have seen several female Prosperos, Mercutios & Benvolios, plus Glenda Jackson famously took on the title role of King Lear at the Old Vic – a production that also made its way across to Broadway.
If this has all been happening throughout history (for nearly as long as these plays have been in existence), why are people so furious and indignant about it now? For some, they won’t know the history (fair enough), or have the imagination to consider that this isn’t some new-fangled thing being foisted upon theatre by feminists and liberals (not fair enough). True, there are many incredible traditionally female roles, with great lines and a lot of stage time – Beatrice, Katherine, Viola, to name but a few – however for some of them their agency isn’t always clear-cut. We all know how problematic The Taming of the Shrew can be…
Changing the gender of a role can end up making more sense of the character – for example, Helenus in Emma Rice’s Dream, and Lazarus Theatre’s recent production of The Tempest with Prospero & Miranda as mother & son. It can make their motivations more accessible to our times, or even the particular demographic that you might be targeting. It’s also interesting to see genderblind casting in action; women get more roles (and likewise men), but you can see them in a totally different light with different sensibilities behind it – Adjoa Andoh’s Richard II in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last winter was an absolute game-changer. And it’s not just about the women, as this approach can also create new and varied opportunities for men (Shubham Saraf’s Ophelia last year at the Globe is another good example of being able to see a character in a more engaging light).
I’m sure I’ll be arguing with people about this for the rest of my days, as it’s not even something you can put down to generational differences, but I hope I can continue to convert more advocates along the way. Theatre, above pretty much all other art forms, is about suspending disbelief – let’s not make that a forgotten skill.