Commentary: Single-gender productions of Shakespeare

Twelfth NightBelasco Theatre

Shakespeare on Stage: Separating the women from the men, and the men from the boys

Is there any merit to todays popular and trendy all-men and all-women Shakespeare productions?

By Wayne Myers

As the Globe’s Twelfth Night/Richard III double bill ends its Broadway run later this month, I’d like to congratulate the Globe and Mark Rylance, who plays Olivia in Twelfth Night and Richard of Gloucester in Richard III, for two things.

First, for doing what I never dreamed was possible — turning William Shakespeare into Neil Simon. And second, for the 54 year-old Rylance inspiring male actors in their 50s everywhere who always wanted to play female Shakespeare characters in their 20s or younger.

Personally, I think I’d make a terrific Ophelia. Just slap some breasts on me, and I’m “Globe-ready.” But I don’t expect for a minute that audiences and critics would love my Ophelia more than that of, say, Pippa Nixon or Mariah Gale.

No other playwright’s works have been routinely subjected to such banal and bizarre permutations than those of Shakespeare. Now the Globe’s Broadway success — with all-too-easy-to-please audiences — has set the stage for American and Canadian theater companies to mount all-men Shakespeare productions of their own.

Many stateside companies have long looked to the British stage for the best examples of Shakespeare production, from companies such as the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe, the Donmar Warehouse, Theatre Royal Bath and Dundee Rep.  But the all-men Shakespeare production is one example that should not be followed.

If I think (and I don’t want to give Broadway producers any more ideas here) it would be ridiculous for grown men to play Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Maggie and Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, why would I make an exception for Shakespeare’s women such as Tamora in Titus Andronicus, Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Queen Margaret in Henry VI, Part 1, 2 and 3?

I did happen to see a man play Queen Margaret in Edward Hall’s slaughterhouse-set Rose Rage, his adaptation of the Henry VI plays, with an all-men Chicago Shakespeare Theater cast at the Duke on 42nd Street, in October 2004. It was a riveting production, just as it was when the all-men Propeller Theatre Company premiered it in London in 2002. But I found a man in the role of Margaret persistently jarring. And I didn’t really think anything was gained by it. Lost instead was something greater — Shakespeare’s “she-wolf of France,” in full battle gear, castrating, disemboweling and beheading the Duke of York after the disastrous Yorkist defeat at Wakefield.

In the Globe’s Richard III, a grown man plays Anne, whom Richard brazenly seduces over the corpse of her father-in-law King Henry VI, whom Richard murdered. But I can’t imagine that any man as Anne could produce something as sexually-searing as Antony Sher’s Richard poking his crutch between Penny Downie’s Anne’s legs in the 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

The Shakespeare landscape has been altered. At no other time in the more than 400-year history of Shakespeare performance has gender been as diffuse and as liberally flipped as it has since Shakespeare created Julia, Portia, Rosalind and Viola — with boy actors in the roles. Today men are cross-cast as Shakespeare’s women and women are cross-cast as Shakespeare’s men.

Sometimes the genders of the characters are changed. In Julie Taymor’s 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest, Prospero became “Prospera,” with Helen Mirren. In the Philadelphia-based Curio Theatre Company’s fall 2013 production of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo was a teenage girl in a same-sex relationship with Juliet. More and more, directors of Twelfth Night, or What You Will are changing the character of Antonio to “Antonia,” a woman of action, significantly altering the Sebastian-Antonio relationship. I know it may be fun for some to see a woman as a swash-buckling pirate taking on men. But is it Shakespeare?

What this says about the gender-swapping issue is that while it may be fine to alter a character’s gender, it has to be carefully worked out so as not to create a character Shakespeare never wrote.

This current peculiar British predilection for the all-men Shakespeare production had its roots in Cheek by Jowl’s 1991 all-men production of As You Like It. Edward Hall’s all-men Propeller Theatre Company launched in 1997 with a production of Henry V. (There was not a corresponding rise of the all-women Shakespeare production in the United Kingdom, which I will get to.)

A neat term to capture elements of early Shakespeare production and to legitimize, or rationalize, the all-men cast trend was coined —“original practices,” so chosen since no claim to authenticity could ever be made as to how things were precisely done on the Elizabethan stage, only approximations.

Only the all-men production is not an approximation of how Shakespeare’s plays were performed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras — not even close. Those who stage all-men productions tend to talk around this fact. But it’s lazy critics and bloggers who continue to spread this distortion of “that’s how it was done in Shakespeare’s day” that do the real damage.

So let’s call the all-men Shakespeare production and the all-women Shakespeare production what they really are: late 20th century trends that are now more popular than ever.

I can understand women wanting to do more Shakespeare, given the paucity of roles for them — even fewer, as men appropriate the female roles (opportunities for women to play seven female characters were lost to men in the Globe double bill) in an increasing number of productions. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company and Hawaii Shakespeare Festival have been staging all-women Shakespeare productions for years, and the Butterfield 8 Theatre Company in 2011 gave audiences not only an all-men Twelfth Night but an all-female one too, with alternating casts. But it was the Phyllida Lloyd-directed all-women Julius Caesar the Donmar Warehouse brought to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in late 2013 that grabbed wide-spread attention — simply, I suspect, because it was a U.K. theater doing it.

Expect to see more all-female productions in the United States and Canada. (Indeed, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will stage an all-female Two Gentlemen of Verona in June).

Theater companies like Propeller uniformly stage all-men productions, while the Globe only does so sporadically. In the United States, the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., is committed to original practices, but — and this says a lot — does not stage all-men productions (although it does cross-cast both men’s and women’s roles).

The Globe, meanwhile, has missed a genuine original practices opportunity to use boy actors age 18 to 22, which is really how it was done in Shakespeare’s day, by choosing instead to go with commercially viable burlesque with grown men in the Twelfth Night and Richard III women’s roles.

In his 2005 Shakespeare Survey, Volume 58, article titled How Old Were Shakespeare’s Boy Actors? David Kathman concluded that “until the early 1660s, female roles on the English stage (including the most demanding, complex parts) were played by adolescent boys, no younger than twelve and no older than twenty-one or twenty-two, with a median of around sixteen or seventeen,” and not the children eight to 12 years old that some critics have wrongly assumed they were.

Critically, the age range of boy actors also would have corresponded to the age range of the majority of Shakespeare’s female characters such as Rosalind, Celia, Phebe, and Audrey in As You Like It.

How might boy actors in the roles of Viola, Olivia and Maria have informed Twelfth Night, or What You Will on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage? For boy actors playing Viola and Olivia, their actual ages would have fallen into what I believe are the true age range of these Twelfth Night characters — 16- to 21-years-old. The cast of characters, in fact, is nearly uniformly young, giving special emphasis to the warning Shakespeare has Feste deliver with the line “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.” This was too true in Elizabethan London, where the average life expectancy of a well-off Londoner was 30-35, while poor Londoners could expect to live between 18 to 20 years.

The plague was a constant threat, with major outbreaks occurring in 1563, the year before Shakespeare was born, 1593, and 1603. Brothels filled London’s Bankside, where the Globe Theatre was located, and venereal diseases were rampant. The Thames was both the city’s sewer and water supply. Shakespeare worked graphic references to the many dreaded aspects of daily life in London into his plays. In King Lear, Lear compares being the father of Goneril to having the plague: “Thou art a bile, a plague-sore or embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood,” he rages at her. At the end of Troilus and Cressida, Pandarus promises to infect the audience with his venereal diseases.

More importantly, a boy actor would have given Viola the androgyny Twelfth Night critically turns on.

Yet audiences and critics have found the Globe’s Twelfth Night entertaining. Even London Guardian theater critic Michael Billington, who in his Nov. 18, 2012 review of the production at London’s Apollo Theatre, wrote that “In general, I am against the idea of adult males playing Shakespeare’s women: it is hardly authentic, as the parts were written for teenage boys. But it does yield a very funny performance from Paul Chahidi, who turns Maria into a roguish figure forever eyeing Sir Toby with lascivious enthusiasm.”

But for those who cringed at the grown men playing young women in the production, it may not be over when the double bill closes. Twelfth Night may win a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Meanwhile, expect to see more self-serving all-men and all-women Shakespeare productions in the United States and Canada.

Can men play Shakespeare’s women and women play Shakespeare’s men? Of course they can. And it probably will fill a lot of seats.

But what does it do for Shakespeare? 

Copyright 2014, CNY Cafe Momus

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