“Never does one understand so well the failure of women in art as when one sees them deliberately impersonating men upon the stage.” No, not a response to Tessa Parr’s female Hamlet last year at Leeds Playhouse nor Ruth Negga at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Michelle Terry at Shakespeare’s Globe or Maxine Peake at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2014. The opinion was Max Beerbohm’s response to Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet back in 1899.
The gender agenda, and the fury it ignites in the literal-minded, is nothing new. And prejudice against breaking with theatrical tradition is certainly alive in the more recent past. Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar was a theatrical winner at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2012 and paved the way for her trilogy of productions, but the acclaim was not universal. Lloyd’s vision was secure, though, not least because she already had form in this area, having taken over as director on an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003. That resulted in Janet McTeer giving what I, as a full-blooded homosexual, regard as the most thrillingly sexy Petruchio I’ve ever seen.
But are attitudes changing? Not according to YouGov research from three years ago in which 48% of British people asked about a female Hamlet didn’t like the idea. There’s no getting around the fact that when it comes to revivals of classics, directorial choices breaking with expectation still cause feathers to be ruffled.
The most talked-about role-reversal of recent times was Marianne Elliott’s Company in which – for anyone who has been in solitary confinement for the last year – she reconceived Robert (aka Bobby), the central character of George Furth’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s score, as Bobbie, a woman. Pretty much the only script changes were of pronouns plus updated references to, for example, mobile phones. Although Furth was no longer alive to give his blessing, Sondheim loved it. Indeed, it was so successful that that the production is now planning a Broadway run next year.
But even Sondheim’s approval was not enough for those who either couldn’t or wouldn’t countenance change. So it’s particularly welcome that two current productions sporting directorial rethinks around gender have met with relatively little resistance. Indeed one, Nicholas Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s Bridge Theatre, has been criticised by some for not going far enough.
Fascinatingly, Hytner’s quietly radical approach has, like Company, not necessitated major textual disruption. Numerous previous productions have doubled Theseus with Oberon and Hippolyta with Titania, but almost never to any dramatic effect except on the producer’s wage bill. Hytner, however, has taken that idea and given it life with Titania now speaking Oberon’s lines and vice versa. This not only gives Titania agency over the action in the wood with the lovers and the Mechanicals, but, paired with her role as Hippolyta, repositioned the play as Hippolyta’s revenge. Given that only one Shakespeare play is led by a woman – As You Like It – this power shift feels particularly welcome.
Better yet, it’s not just, as it were, a job for the women. In a play with multiple marriages,
misogyny stalks the text (overlooked by most productions) but Hytner addresses it head on. “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword / And won thy love, doing thee injuries,” announces Theseus. To underline her plight as a war trophy, Gwendoline Christie’s imperious Hippolyta is wheeled on at the start in a glass cage. With delicious logic, everything flows from that moment as an increasingly theatrical rebuke to power-wielding men.
There are different yet equal pleasures at the Old Vic, courtesy of Matthew Warchus’ shockingly triumphant production of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. Shockingly because although heaps of leading men have persuaded managements to let them headline revivals of the play first seen with Coward himself in the lead, I’d hitherto never seen a production that disproved the theory: great role, shame about the play.
While Andrew Scott is a star thanks to his Moriarty in Steven Moffat’s TV Sherlock, he has a slew of mesmerising theatre performances under his belt, notably in plays by Christopher Shinn. But the show’s triumph is not solely his. The cast, especially the women down to Liza Sadovy doubling (in award-worthy wigs) as a gloriously baleful Swedish housekeeper and a near-preposterously antique aristocrat, time, harpoon and land Coward’s lines with such indecent relish that audiences roar with laughter.
And then Warchus takes Garry’s pivotal, dangerous affair with predatory-but-married Joanna and turns it into an affair with Joe. Deftly switching the gender, not the lines, this move simply restores every ounce of necessary shock. It’s a perfect case of a director disobeying the letter but cleaving to the spirit of the original to play to contemporary audiences. Producers, take note.