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A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Pleasance Theatre, London – ‘appealing gender-switched Shakespeare’

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Pleasance Theatre, London. Photo: Joel Phillimore The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Pleasance Theatre, London. Photo: Joel Phillimore
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It takes a while to adjust. Here is Duchess Theseus presiding over the case brought by Egeus, a mother, against her son Hermia, who is refusing to marry the woman of parental choice, Demetrius. Soon feminine Lysander and husky, red-bearded Helena (Matthew McFetridge, who doubles as Titania) join the fray.

Cross-gender Shakespeare, especially in the Dream, has become almost commonplace. The current RSC production has Puck played by Lucy Ellinson and more than one female Bottom among its community casts; the ensemble in the recent anarchic Filter version doubled as necessary, and at the Globe Emma Rice will have a cast of eight women to six men. But this enterprise is different: Ailis Duff as Bottom, or Kate Cavendish as Oberon, are not imitating men; their characters are female. The result is an eye-opening comment on women’s position, both in the theatre and in society generally, the point most cogently made precisely when lines seem awkward – Helena’s anxiety about his looks, for instance.

The experiment works because transformation and confusion underpin the plot, because non-human characters can be androgynous, but mainly because the young cast, under director Laura Jasper, avoid generalised stereotyping and attack the (slightly truncated) text with thoughtfulness, honesty and good comic knockabout. Sadly, the overdone coarse acting in the Mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe play is counterproductive. Odinn Hilmarsson engineers some satisfyingly eerie sounds and Samuel Wilde’s black box set is a suitably negative (in the photographic sense) take on Brook’s white one.

Shakespeare had to write women’s roles to fit the male talent available – modern companies are relishing greater freedom.

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Instructive, appealing – if sometimes mind-boggling – experiment in reverse-gender casting