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Gender-blind Shakespeare casting ‘stupid’, says playwright Ronald Harwood

Ronald Harwood. Photo: Featureflash/Shutterstock Ronald Harwood. Photo: Featureflash/Shutterstock
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Playwright Ronald Harwood has claimed that casting women in male Shakespearean roles is “an insult to the playwright” and “astonishingly stupid”.

His words follow earlier comments made in February, in which he said he would never allow a woman to play the lead role in his most famous play, The Dresser, a clause he has stipulated in his will.

Harwood claimed in an interview in The Times that he “can’t bear it” when women play Shakespearean male leads such as King Lear.

“It’s an insult to the playwright. I know it’s being done all over the place and Sarah Bernhardt was the first to do it in Hamlet, but I don’t think that was very wise either. I just can’t suspend my belief in that kind of thing,” he said.

His comments follow several acclaimed productions in which women have taken on Shakespeare’s lead male roles – such as Michelle Terry as Henry V and Maxine Peake as Hamlet – and as performers including Tamsin Greig and Glenda Jackson prepare to play star roles in gender-fluid Shakespeare productions.

Jackson will take on King Lear at the Old Vic in October, a decision Harwood said he couldn’t understand.

“I was sitting next to Glenda Jackson when she said she was going to play King Lear. But why? It’s written for a man. It’s a very tough part. It demands huge energy and masculine strength, and that’s how it was written. He’d have called it Queen Lear if he wanted a woman to play it,” he said.

He went on to say that he did not mind productions in which all parts were played by women or by actors of a certain ethnicity. “But to put a woman in the role with men around her seems to me to be astonishingly stupid,” he added.

Earlier this year, a YouGov survey of 2,000 British people found that almost half disliked the idea of Hamlet being played by a woman.

Harwood also criticised the recent BBC adaptation of The Dresser, which starred Ian McKellen in the title role, and Anthony Hopkins, claiming he thought it was “dreadful”.

A new production of The Dresser, starring Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith, tours next month ahead of a West End run at the Duke of York’s Theatre in October.

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