Lyn Gardner: Gender-swapped revivals like Company keep theatre alive, relevant and exciting
Marianne Elliott’s re-imagining and re-gendering of Company is a five-star triumph. It’s not just the way that bachelor Bobby seamlessly becomes Bobbie – a 35-year-old single woman living in Manhattan – but also the way the production makes the story so contemporary.
Getting Married Today is no longer sung by Amy but by Jamie – a very funny Jonathan Bailey – who is half of a gay couple, and the dim flight attendant who leaves Bobbie in her bed to go to Barcelona is also a man. This is a show that says as much about changing attitudes to sex, gender and even who does what job as it does about ticking biological clocks.
Elliott’s production drags a musical that has found it hard to escape its 1970s roots into the 21st century. It gives the work a new lease of life and ensures that Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical will live on beyond the West End production. It is a brilliant example of how gender-swapping can reinvigorate a show that, in other circumstances, may have fallen into neglect because it seemed so utterly of its time. Everyone wins.
Nonetheless, even while cheering this revival, some seem a little non-plussed by opening up traditionally male roles to female actors. Writing in the Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish observed: “Hardly a day goes by, it seems, in which the drums of gender conflict aren’t being angrily banged and barely a week goes by in which a flag isn’t being flown for some new gender-bending innovation on stage.”
He went on to say: “In the space of a fortnight, we have seen a role-reversing Measure for Measure at the Donmar, cross-dressing galore in Emma Rice’s new show, Wise Children, at the Old Vic, and, at the Royal Shakespeare Company, a Troilus and Cressida that has actresses playing Ulysses, Agamemnon and Aeneas. On Friday it was reported that Judi Dench will star as Old Deuteronomy (habitually a male moggy) in the film version of Cats.”
Well, why not? If the last 2,000 years of theatre has mostly put men centre stage, isn’t it fascinating to see what happens to those plays and musicals, often also written by men, when the leads’ genders are swapped?
At the Cutting Edge: British Theatre in Hard Times conference in 2015, director Phyllida Lloyd declared: “It’s not a conspiracy by men to keep women off film or stage, it’s just they don’t notice if we’re not there.” Well, they’re noticing now, and those like Cavendish are going to have to get used to it. Not least because, as London’s Royal Court’s announcement of its female-dominated 2019 season demonstrated last week, after centuries of neglect women are finally getting the chance to have their say on our stages.
But it’s telling that the vast majority of the media coverage of the Royal Court’s new season began not by pointing out how exciting it was that the venue would be supporting so many women and artists of colour, but instead with the news that John Tiffany and Jack Thorne are reuniting for a new play, The End of History.
Yes, I am really looking forward to that too, but it is the radicalism of the season, with its emphasis on new voices, that is significant, since it is important not only that more plays by more diverse artists are being staged, but also where they are staged. The Royal Court is perceived as the premier home of new writing.
Diversity on our stages isn’t good just because it makes British theatre more attractive to a broader audience; it’s good because it produces better art
Of course, only so many productions can be staged at any one theatre each year. Should female artists be given a bigger slice of the pie for a certain amount of time, that only rebalances centuries of performance history in which they have seldom had any pie at all. To suggest that men are being elbowed aside because of the increased visibility of work by women or gender-swapped casting is absurd. Just as it is absurd to suggest white, able-bodied actors are being disadvantaged by theatre’s belated realisation that it had completely failed to notice anyone else and is starting to redress the balance.
As this year’s Edinburgh Fringe recognised – as does a show such as Company – diversity on our stages isn’t good just because it makes British theatre more relevant and attractive to a broader audience. It’s also good because it produces better art. Company suddenly seems bang on the money, not in spite of the gender swap but because of it.
The magnificent Rosalie Craig has not been cast as Bobbie because of what Cavendish identifies as part of a move in theatre towards “ ‘progressive’ orthodoxy” but because it keeps Company alive, just as Golda Rosheuvel playing Othello at the Liverpool Everyman made us lean forward in our seats and see and hear the play as if seeing it for the very first time.
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