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Andrzej Lukowski: Shakespeare still fresh in the 21st century as every role is up for grabs

Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Photo: Jonathan Keenan Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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Somewhere, in a dank crevasse of the internet, there will be somebody venting their spleen over the recent news that Hayley Atwell will be alternating the roles of Isabella and Angelo with Jack Lowden in the Donmar’s new production of Measure for Measure.

But refreshingly, they would seem to be in a minority. Admittedly, director Josie Rourke’s take on the play comes with a somewhat head-scratching conceit – as well as the gender swapping – it’s set in two timelines 400 years apart, but other than that the world at large is not shocked by the casting.

Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden to swap roles in Donmar Warehouse Measure for Measure

Anyone with even a vague knowledge of British theatre history will be aware that gender fluidity and Shakespeare are well acquainted. The tradition of men playing Shakespeare’s women is as old as the plays themselves.

In the recent era, the likes of Adrian Lester and Mark Rylance have scored tremendous successes playing women in productions that referenced the stagings of Shakespeare’s day.

And though it’s rarer to find women playing the male roles, there is a long history of it: the French actress Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet (albeit in an adaptation) in 1899. This month we will have a female Othello and a female Mercutio on major stages in the UK.

Is there, then, anything noteworthy or remarkable about the new Donmar production or, say, the Globe’s imminent Hamlet/As You Like It rep season, wherein Hamlet is played by a woman, Rosalind a man, and near enough every role features an actor divergent in sex, age, race or disability from traditional interpretations of their given role?

Well, in a way there’s not, but that’s the remarkable thing. While I suspect there will be a few grumbles in the more snowflakey corners of the right-wing press on opening night, there has been no stir over Michelle Terry playing Hamlet.

There were hardly howls of outrage at our last major female Hamlet, Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange in 2014. But there was a bit more of a brouhaha, a few more column inches, a sense that – as with most of her historic predecessors – a special exemption had been issued in order to allow a famous actress to take on an iconic role.

But now: nah. Terry’s Hamlet feels like even less of a shocker than Terry’s Henry V from 2016. Audiences were unfazed by Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia at the National last year and lapped up Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female trilogy at the Donmar. Nobody questioned Glenda Jackson’s right to play King Lear at the Old Vic in 2016. It is a non issue.

Glenda Jackson in King Lear review at the Old Vic – ‘a tour de force’

There is a danger of getting utopian about Shakespeare. A lot of productions at a grassroots level are still traditional stagings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Lyn Gardner was right in her recent column to say that stuffing it down the gullets of school kids is playing a dangerous game. It is fairly apparent that the institutions offering the most to dismantle traditional gender roles are the ones run by women.

But increasingly, every role is up for grabs for any actor. In 10 or 20 years’ time it will seem as quaint to say a woman can’t play Antony as to say an actor of colour can’t.

The good thing about having a national playwright is that he needs to justify his place in a society that has changed drastically in the last four centuries and has continued to change drastically in the last four years. Shakespeare remains fresh because he has to remain fresh in order to keep up with the times. Which he has mostly done.

As the national conversation about gender and identity advances, Shakespeare has no choice but to advance with it. And the fact that a jobs-for-the-boys attitude is no longer an option shows theatre has understood and is moving in the right direction.

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