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Madeleine Worrall: Casual sexism is entrenched in theatre – it must change

Madeleine Worrall (centre) in Jane Eyre at the National Theatre in 2015. Photo: Manuel Harlan Madeleine Worrall (centre) in Jane Eyre at the National Theatre in 2015. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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When Madeleine Worrall started her career in the 1990s, she couldn’t understand why she was treated differently to her male counterparts. Now is the time for the industry to redress the balance, she argues


From the moment I went to drama school, I witnessed or experienced sexism and the casual warping of behavioural boundaries by men in positions of greater power.

It is hard to isolate all the contributing factors from the morass of general sexism that still pervades society at large, continuing to favour men in terms of pay, working conditions and opportunities.

When I was a young adult in the late 1990s, many parts available to young actresses were still insipid and passive. Conventional story archetypes and the ‘traditional’ canon continued to dominate, by their nature propelled and shaped by male stories, most frequently by male writers.

It may have been nearly 80 years since Virginia Woolf had written about the challenges of reshaping and recreating that canon, but there was no sign that we were close to achieving it.

I remember a significant second recall for a big TV period drama; at that time I was put up for lots of ‘ingenue’ parts, like many other young actresses. They told me I handled the gutsy scenes with aplomb but they wanted to see me do the more romantic (to me, written as slushy nonsense) scenes again, and asked if I could soften them up.

I still remember some welling sense of fury that, because I was a girl, I should have to master the art of being soft, passive and romantic.

So, I said I didn’t think I was the right person for the job.

There was a stunned silence; the producer, director and casting director stared at me as though at a lunatic.

The walk back down the long corridor with the casting director was one of unbroken silence until she said with steel in her voice and jaw clenched: “Don’t ever, ever tell us what you think we’re looking for… you will do yourself out of a job.” And that was that.

I tell this story because it exemplifies how little control young women were expected to have over their own creative decisions or careers in the industry at the time.

I knew my own strengths and preferences, and because I expressed my unease at the way this character had been interpreted, written and was expected to be portrayed (as a tedious ‘love sop’), I was treated as a troublemaker.

Many male colleagues, from my age to considerably older, had stories of meetings full of badinage, ballsy jokes, feet up on the table. Confidence and irascibility were cool if you were a young man. They were also generally going for parts with more guts, more control within the storyline, meatier, less whimsical.

If you’re constantly going up for Miranda in The Tempest, or asked to be softer, more passive – to play characters with no control, revolving around their male counterparts like dewy orbs – then it’s hard to feel empowered or confident when you talk about or make the work. You feel like a blancmange.

Of course, there have always been young women who have the guts or talent to buck this trend and, oh, how I admire them.

It’s hard enough to do as a woman, and even harder if you don’t come from a professional or secure middle-class family, with financial security and a strong education watching your back. That’s all part of the same debate.

In the first decade of my career, I was told by an important professional mentor that because I was both clever and (apparently) pretty, people didn’t quite ‘get’ me, and found it hard to know ‘what to do’ with me. That didn’t seem to trouble people casting many of my clever male contemporaries.

On one TV job, an insider told me the director had wanted to cast someone else because he fancied her more; that made sense of his behaviour to me throughout filming. When I asked an intelligent question about the geography of the set while rehearsing a play, I was told by the director, in front of my colleagues, that I didn’t “have to worry my pretty little head about that”. I can still feel the furious sting of confusion and bewilderment.

There was a deeply uncomfortable meeting with a film director and executives in a hotel suite on Park Lane. Invitations for drinks from the male director followed on more than one occasion – to which I went, desperately and humiliatingly confused by what was expected of me.

During training, a saturnine and unpredictable tutor with an apparently endlessly high opinion of himself would brag about his power in the theatre industry. He pursued the prettiest girl in the class and began a relationship, subtly reinforcing the idea that somehow sex was bound up with success.

We were all young and naive, he should have known better. When I started working not long after, I was delighted to discover that his boasting was almost entirely bullshit.

Throughout that first decade of adulthood, I often felt that I was wading through a fog of uncertainty in various arenas of life, expected to behave with some men in a certain way, disappointing and baffling them when I didn’t.

Daily, ‘casual’ prejudice happened with such dreary regularity that my rage melded with confusion and then grew into a sense of weary resignation and acceptance.

It happened in so many areas of life, that on the rare (thankfully, for me) occasions that it spilled over into a situation with ambiguous sexual undertones, I didn’t have a strong enough sense of how to deal with it, what to say, how to tell them to bog off.

When people ask why the many courageous women now coming forward with reports of their experiences with Harvey Weinstein didn’t report them at the time, or why some of them went along with his attempts, I get it. I really do.

Of course, for every patronising or predatory twonk, there was a bright star to reflect the dark.

The tutor who supervised me on my thesis at university was a warm, encouraging, kind man who saw my lack of confidence (reinforced by some of his colleagues), treated me with respect and drew me out. Thanks to his encouragement, I just scraped a starred first in my thesis at least. Encouragement goes a long way. My acting agent for 13 years – until his retirement – was a wonderful, warm, encouraging man, a titan of decency within a difficult industry.

Theatres such as the National Theatre, run by the wonderful Rufus Norris, are places in which young women are supported and championed. The range of parts for women is opening up like a flower, there are more women writers, more women directors; it all adds up.

The theatre and film industries always mirror the world, both in their subjects and in how their stories are made.

The exploitation by powerful people is gradually being called out, case by case, grimly and stoically by brave, determined people.

The worlds of theatre and film are, I hope, reflecting a growing unwillingness of society to tolerate abuse and inequality in all forms, however deft and subtle, however grossly explosive in their scope.

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