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The Green Room: How do we make the theatrical canon more female?

Aphra Behn’s The Rover, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2016, is a relatively rare example of a ‘classic’ play by a woman. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​​

Dicky Benfield is in his 40s and has worked in the West End, at the National, the Globe and in theatres around the country, as well as appearing on TV

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances


Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, she has worked in regional theatres and is a writer and street performer

Jon: With theatres aiming for a 50/50 split in the gender of their writers, what’s to be done about the fact that the vast majority of ‘classic’ plays were written by men?

Peter: It starts with the writers. And we’re talking about two different strategies: new work and the established repertoire.

Beryl: I agree.

Dicky: I think we just need to make casting more interesting – female Lears, Hamlets, that kind of thing.

Peter: With the classics, some cross-gender casting works better than others.

Beryl: I also think it can be seen as gimmicky and not necessarily taken seriously.

Dicky: Agreed, but I think that’s because we aren’t quite used to it.

Beryl: Is it about what is taught in schools?

Annie: I was just thinking that I never read any female playwrights in school.

Dicky: We did Shelagh Delaney and that was it.

Vivian: I have a small, unpopular opinion: I’m sick of the fucking canon. I’m sick of classical plays. I’m bored with Shakespeare. I tire of Williams. I snooze during the Greeks. I want new stories. Sorry.

Beryl: No – the Greeks are ace.

Vivian: Actually I’ve just read a re-imagined version of Oedipus by a well-known female playwright and it was revelatory. If it has to be done, that’s how it is to be done: re-imagined, restructured, remixed.

Peter: Whatever our motives as theatre workers, the aim always has to be work that convinces an audience.

Beryl: I think we need to change the idea of the ‘canon’ altogether.

Jon: Is it worth trying to find lost classics by women? There were women writers before the 20th century. Or does that just mean seeing the same plays by Aphra Behn over and over again?

Beryl: I thought of Aphra Behn and then couldn’t think of anyone else.

The Rover review at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘boisterous, lively and very funny’

Jon: A director friend of mine said to me: “Most theatres’ idea of making the canon more equal is to do Rutherford and Son every now and then.”

Peter: I’m wary of ‘lost classics’. I’ve been in at least one that was lost for very good reasons.

Annie: I didn’t even know of Aphra Behn – I must look her up her immediately.

Beryl: Do we need to address the idea of what a ‘classic’ is?

Jon: Classic status is more easily handed to men than women, I think – or has been.

Peter: It depends on the genre. Jane Austen and George Eliot are regarded as classics.

Annie: I would love it if there were a search for more female classical writers – and, yes, re-imagining them, Vivian.

Beryl: Or do we keep moving forward and create new ‘classics’? We can’t revive what was never written.

Dicky: It’s hard for theatres to put on forgotten classics or indeed too many new plays, sadly. Bums on seats and all that.

Jon: I agree about creating new classics. But in the short term that would mean loads of productions of the same few plays. The ‘women’s writing’ brief can’t just be filled by another A Taste of Honey.

Beryl: It’s tricky. How do we address the fact that there aren’t enough of them other than by writing and commissioning new stuff?

Jon: Playing devil’s advocate: this could also affect contemporary male playwrights. If you’re trying to programme a balanced season and three of your plays are by Shakespeare, Ibsen and Miller then all of your new plays will have to be by women.

Dicky: There are some incredible female writers.

Beryl: Yes but we need their work to be thought of as ‘classic’ or a ‘modern classic’.

Jon: I agree that it’s about how we define a classic. There are many less-than-great plays by great writers that get revived based on the name, not the quality.

Peter: Modern work isn’t as much of a problem. There are lots of good women writers around. How we deal with the classics is the issue.

Vivian: I think we should address it publicly. We are talking about making the canon more female by just slotting in more female plays. Is it possible that the canon and classical theatre as it stands is the problem? The structure of classical theatre is flawed. Shoving more women into a flawed structure doesn’t add or improve the medium.

Beryl: I agree.

Vivian: Classical theatre is racist, sexist and white. It confirms a sense of superiority in a racist, sexist audience.

Jon: ‘Is’ or ‘can be’?

Peter: The latter. The Winter’s Tale isn’t sexist, for example. Three Sisters isn’t sexist.

Beryl: The Winter’s Tale is a beautiful play, but it’s not great on class, as most are not.

Vivian: Classical theatre has created an audience that is conservative and unwilling to see stuff beyond its own remit. It does our art form no favours. A white fella in tights declaiming in RP does us no favours.

Beryl: To be fair, I’ve seen it done brilliantly – it doesn’t have to be posh white men in tights.

Dicky: You’d have to put something like Top Girls down as a modern classic.

Jon: I’m trying to think what other plays by women in the past 50 years have achieved that kind of status. Our Country’s Good, maybe? Or Art? It’s a depressingly hard task. I think Emilia might, but it’s too soon to tell.

Emilia review at Vaudeville Theatre, London – ‘Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play roars into the West End’

Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room. If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email greenroom@thestage.co.uk

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