“To be [a man], or not to be: that is the question.” By playing Shakespeare’s men, can female actors gain a stronger presence in the performance of his plays?

Emma Bentley's debut solo show 'To She or Not To She' is about playing Shakespeare’s men... without a codpiece. @tosheornottoshe Emma shares with Female Arts her final research project, on gender and performance in Shakespeare.:


During my training at LIPA I have been in two Shakespeare plays: Twelfth Night in my second year and The Comedy of Errors in my third. In the first I hoped to get the part of Viola, the independent castaway and when there was any mention of Comedy I knew that I wanted to play the fervent Adriana. Both parts could be seen as a treat for any young female actor looking for a meaty role in a Shakespeare. As it happens I did not get the chance to play either Viola or Adriana, I was cast as men instead.

Feste was the part I was given in Twelfth Night. Disappointment was my initial reaction: I was the young woman from Stratford-upon-Avon who had started to set up an extracurricular Shakespeare performance group in the first year. This was my thing: of course I was going to play Viola. All was not lost I thought, there would be no need for me to lose out by playing a part which was not written for my sex (not that any female roles were written for women either). I had a plan to play the part as a kind of East End landlady: I pictured hoop earrings and blue eye shadow, fishnets and a short demin skirt. Keith Woodason, our director was not keen. ‘He doesn’t have to be man or woman. Don’t decide anything yet, let’s just see what happens.’ From that moment onwards the process was one of the most important stages of my training. I realised I was not only capable of playing a man but found I connected to the part better than some of the female roles I had been chosen to play. And it was the most fun.

On 6th December 2012 an article written by John-Paul Ford Rojas was published by the Telegraph with the headline Royal Shakespeare Company 'must be forced to employ equal numbers of male and female actors'. The article was written in a response to Phyllida Lloyd’s appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme on account of her new all-female production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse. In the interview she stated that enforcing a 50/50 employments spread at the RSC would encourage ‘some gender-blind casting, some all-female.’ It is upon reading articles such as this that I find myself reaching for my phone to tweet about it or writing a post on the Equity Women’s Committee Facebook page. Lloyd’s comments offer many women of the industry, hope for the future of a fortified female presence in the production of the Shakespearean cannon.

In the case of our drama school setting, it was necessary for a number of the female members of the class to play male parts in order to get everyone on stage. Of course casting cannot be entirely ‘fair’ in terms of the size of the part, inevitably some roles are bigger than others regardless of the gender. However, in terms of the gender balance within both Twelfth Night and Comedy, with the exception of one more female actor in Comedy, the casts were 50/50 split. The constraints of the institution and the tuition fees that each female student pays (equal to that of the male students) created these casting restraints for the directors involved.

Unfortunately this experience by no means reflects the opportunities available to us in British theatre industry when we graduate. There is no structure in place to ensure that equal numbers of male to female actors perform in the works of Shakespeare or any dramatic medium for that matter. Returning to the article (2012), Lloyd states ‘it was “iniquitous” that the RSC employed “so few women” actors and predicted that European legislation may in future force it to employ equal numbers of each sex.’ For a company who thus far, has only dipped its toe into the possibly of gender blind casting in its wide scope of productions each year, this would be a huge transformation. Whether it is a legislation that is feasible to put in place in the future is what I will investigate in this essay.

A theory based approach has helped me to unpack and engage with gender theory in a non-theatrical sense. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) has provided the basis for this research along with Sarah Chinn’s essay Gender Performativity (1997), which has given me an understanding of the work of Michel Foucault, J. L. Austin and Louis Althusser’s, which provided the foundation to Butler’s philosophy. Two books have particularly aided me in gathering information on the work of feminist perspectives of Shakespeare. These are Women on Hamlet (2007) by Tony Howard and Kate Chedgzoy’s casebook Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender (2001). I have also used Irving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) to investigate into the sociological connection between performance and life.

My research material has also covered a selection of sources more familiar to the actor. The Stage magazine and the Guardian have provided me with critical commentary on the current work of Shakespeare and feminist drama in articles and reviews. Several theatre company’s websites, blogs, education packs have also kept me with up to date with what is happening now. My research has also been richly influenced by the performances I have seen using gender blind casting, of which I particularly focus on the RSC’s The Taming of the Shrew and The Roaring Girl. Being able to speak with fellow directors and actors about both the process and reception of the work has also inspired me throughout writing this essay. I would like to thank Smooth Faced Gentlemen, Emma Nixon and Sarah Folwell for being so honest in their dialogue with me on the work.

Section One: Creating the character and the persona from “the gender wardrobe”

Gender is not a word that comes up in the rehearsal room very often. We rarely hear female actors questioning ‘how do I appear more feminine in this moment?’ or male actors saying ‘I don’t think I look manly enough here.’ However, when gender roles are reversed this becomes a main point of rehearsal dialogue. LIPA graduate Emma Nixon’s first professional role was Bassianus / Martius / Alarbus / Goth Leader, in an all-female production of Titus Andronicus for Smooth Faced Gentlemen. In interview with her, she told me how a recurring note from the director Yaz Al-Shaater would be: ‘I don’t believe you’re a man there’ (2014).

In understanding what the differences between male and female behaviour exactly are; a theory based approach, can be an extremely helpful and even exciting subject to breach. Reading the work of theorists such as Judith Butler can help to demystify this analysis of gender that an actor may experience on the rehearsal room floor. I have found Butler’s theory of ‘gender performativity’ particularly helpful to my understanding. The use of the word ‘performativity’ immediately suggests a connection with ‘life on stage’ and off. Butler states that gender is a matter of social performance rather than an inherent part of our identity. Considering these ideas a female actor is immediately offered an entrance into the possibility of gender blind casting. For if a man’s gender is constructed in their behaviour, a female actor must simply grasp that behaviour using their acting craft in order to play a ‘believable’ man.

This is assuming that we reject an essentialist idea of gender: in other words gender is not determined by the parts that make us up anatomically. In her book The Metaphysics of Gender Charlotte Witt names this ‘the ontological argument against gender essentialism’ (2011, p.8). She states how the feminist idea argues that ‘the identities and self-understandings that make up our social selves are negotiated, performed, rejected and so on’ (p.8). This suggests that our gender manifests itself through a process of ‘trial and error’ and repetition. Much like the way a character is built through a series of exercises and repetition in a rehearsal. The very word ‘rehearsal’ in French is ‘la répétition.’

But how do we arrive at a gender in the first place? According to Butler’s theory ‘we are interpellated into gender from birth’ (Chinn, 1997, p.299). ‘Interpellation’ is an idea that stems from Althusser via Foucault’s theory based approach which concerns the performative act that occurs when we are born. Chinn outlines J. L. Austin’s theory of performative language or ‘speech acts’ as ‘the moment of performativity that brings the act into being’ (p.295). Gender specific performative language occurs for women on the moment of our birth with the words ‘It’s a girl.’ From this point onwards the child in question ‘is compelled to perform girlness’ (p.299). Why? To appear as ‘a meaningful subject’ (p.294) within the given circumstances.

There is an incompatibility between Austin’s theory which concerns our need to perform our gender within the constraints of the given social and/or political setting and the work of the actor (or any artist). To exemplify this contradiction, we can consider the well-known phrase ‘I really wanted to do the part justice.’ This is usually spoken when one is given a part that one feels is very well written and could stand as an important milestone in one’s career. The phrase indicates that we want to be recognised by others as fulfilling that part and in doing so become ‘a meaningful subject.’ But if you could really ‘do the part justice’, surely the play needn’t be performed ever again: when justice is attained the trial is over. However the job of the actor is not to offer an ultimatum but an interpretation of a role. This is where gender theory has the possibility of becoming really interesting in conjunction with the performance of gender blind casting. By subverting our gender on stage we are testing the boundaries set out by society. As Chinn puts it: ‘Incoherent gender performativity can expose the contructedness of gender and (hetero) sexuality’ (1997, p.300).

The reasons that we act out these genders are outlined by the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser in the concept of Ideological State Mechanisms (ISAs) (Chinn, 1997). These are ‘political structures that are produced by and uphold the state but that feel private and normal’ (p.297). He believed that in order to appear ‘normal’ we must conform to the ideology the ISAs impose and we will be recognised in our actions. There is a clear connection with behaviour and the political or social structure that one is surrounded by: another inherently theatrical concept that the actor would classify as context and setting.

For some actors, not conforming to the ISAs set down in our real lives may feel like a frightening prospect. Indeed in Butler’s view ‘people who don’t conform to expectations of gender are accused of not being ‘real women’ or ‘real men’ (Chinn, 1997, p.298). In other words you may not feel like a real person at all. During a rehearsal for The Roaring Girl at the RSC, the female members of the cast spent a day with Scandinavian drag king Ingo, crossing dressing and discovering their male personas. Lizzie Hopley in her rehearsal blog comments reflect Althusser’s idea of the ‘non-person’:

‘I don't look like a man, I don't look like a human being. I look like a creature who belongs in a corner eating rats’ (Whispers from the Wings, 2014).
To ignore the pressure to conform to the gendered identity that is introduced to us from birth can be a difficult and upsetting process. We start to realise how deeply ingrained our idea of ‘normative gender’ is and our fear in distancing ourselves from it.

In rehearsal it is not only in performance of a character that female actors are enlightened to the changeability of gender identity, it is also within the roles that they play as their selves. Lizzie Hopley comments that after the cross dressing workshop, ‘Next day we all come in looking a little more feminine that usual’ (Whispers from the Wings, 2014). Although the rehearsal exercise was not aiming to investigate into any of the actors own gendered identity, the impact was clearly personal and disrupted perceptions their own gendered identity. We realise that we are able to choose from what Butler calls, ‘the wardrobe of gender’ (Critically Queer, 1993, p.23) from day to day and from show to show. In the case of The Roaring Girl cast, the majority immediately reverted back to a ‘more feminine’ representation, suggesting that the more masculine was an uncomfortable breach of what they usually inhabit.

In Erving Goffman’s essay The presentation of self in everyday life (1959) he states that the individual is in a constant state of performance in order to produce ‘the impression of reality that he attempts to engender in those among whom he finds himself’ (p.28). I personally, have found this idea both a useful and dangerous device to practice in a rehearsal room environment. Playing the role of W in Mike Bartlett’s COCK last year I found myself the only woman in the play; including the director and stage manager. Although the rehearsal room was by no means a threatening environment, (in fact the opposite - it was a show where the chemistry between the company worked extremely well) I would say that my behaviour and consequently my performance was influenced by the male/female imbalance. There was no room in rehearsal for sexism, given the subject matter of the play which tackles identity and sexuality at its core. However I felt that within a group of male actors, there is either a tendency to be more ‘masculine’ in order to ‘fit in’, or more ‘feminine’ to ‘stand out’. In this case I would say I behaved in a more feminine manner, wearing dresses and make-up to rehearsal each day. This consequently fed into my performance of the role, giving ‘W’, the most ‘womanly’ performativity I could engender.

I would not go as far as to say that when in a rehearsal room with only men I feel threatened, but I would use the phrase ‘on guard.’ Why this feeling exists for me, I would say comes from past experiences of being talked down to. In talking about her short film Oppressed Majority (whereby the world is run by women) the French director Eléonore Pourriat discusses the idea that men ‘don't imagine that women are assaulted even with words every day, with small, slight words’ (2014). Although I often find the ‘words’ that Pourrait outlines extremely disturbing and irritating, it is sometimes necessary to ignore them in order to ‘get on’ with the work. In an industry where, as Bryony Lavery’s statement suggest ‘The theatre seems too much like a great museum run by male curators’ (Shakespeare Feminism and Gender, 2001, p.71), it can often seem unfathomable that we should be able to break these deep set principles down. However, given how the nature of gender is confronted in the Shakespearean canon with language suggests a powerful connection with how we can use the work of Shakespeare to abet the deconstruction of this thinking. A women playing a man can ‘hold the mirror up to nature’ and in doing so work towards female empowerment. Kate Chedgzoy remarks how ‘we always have to project ourselves against a chasm of historical difference’(p.14) and it is with this in mind that I look towards how to do this in the performance of Shakespeare’s male roles today.

Section Two: “it’ll take more than balled-up socks in our pants for us to get to grips with these complex characters”
Maddie Gould, Titus Andronicus Rehearsal Blog, Smooth Faced Gentlemen

I have differentiated three main methods in which the male roles can be performed by the female actor. Firstly, and most obviously the actor may choose to inhabit the part as a man. The second option is that an entire gender swap of the character can occur, such as Helen Mirren’s Prospera in the 2010 film of The Tempest. Thirdly, a decision may be taken to play the part regardless of gender. This decision is the most difficult to distinguish and analyse given the obscure nature of androgyny itself. However I have found it most clearly imagined in the descriptions of Angela Winkler’s interpretation of Hamlet in 2000. The performance, which is heavily analysed in the book Women on Hamlet, by Tony Howard, describes ‘Winkler’s androgynous Hamlet’ as embodying ‘a wealth of contradictory experiences…’ (2007, p.12).

For me there is a definite connection between Winkler’s androgyny and her ability ‘to absorb Hamlet’s emotions into her own personality’ (p.4). With the part given to you as words on a page, regardless of gender, where else must you look for the meaning in the text but within yourself? With Winkler’s performance this connection is perhaps more profound, given that the play invites the question ‘Is Hamlet a universal figure whose dilemma everyone shares, male or female?’ (p.9) Howard states: ‘Hamlet is the process of individuation,’ in other words the part naturally provokes ideas about how we see ourselves in the world we inhabit (p.58). However, when approaching Feste in Twelfth Night without a specific gender in mind, I too, felt this enabled me to see the role ‘as a different way of living’ (Winkler, p.2, 2007). My costume definitely suggested a contradiction of gender: masculinity in a pair of trousers and a shirt with bowtie and brogues, and femininity in a pink belt and my long hair which was tied up yet visible. Here I made no major physical or vocal adjustments for the role, but used the text as an anchor towards ‘gender performativity.’ But this was often blurred given Feste’s inherent contradiction of his own being and the world he inhabits: ‘Nothing that is so is so’ (IV:1:7).

Where the first option of ‘playing a man’ is concerned for most female actors there is evidently a substantial shift in behaviour that needs to take place in order to create ‘the man’ in question. Gender swaps in our very own Shakespeare’s women can lead us to the different elements in the process of becoming a man. In As You Like It, Rosalind is no longer able to protect herself from the dangers of the Forest of Arden as a woman, and so becomes a man in order to remain unharmed. Rosalind does not want to conform to what is codified by the society she lives in by being a ‘real women’ so in answer to that she becomes a ‘real man’ (Chinn, 1997). Abandoning the femininity that we have been ‘interpellated’ to from birth through learning and repetition of what it is to be a woman, allows Rosalind to play against gender norms.

Using Rosalind’s transformation into Ganymeade we can dismantle the ‘illusion’ of male gender based upon what she perceives to be “manly” in order to investigate how the female actor might approach playing a man:

‘A gallant curtal-axe upon my thigh,
A boar-spear in my hand, and in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will,
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside—
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.’ (1:3:115-120)

Here Rosalind describes her disguise as Ganymeade in three parts. Firstly she describes her costume: two large weapons presumably to suggest power. Secondly, the concealment of her own womanish fear. The third part suggests a warrior-like ‘outside’ or manner. It is interesting to note here the connection between a ‘woman’s fear’ and ‘mannish cowards.’ Rosalind points out that both men and women have weak ‘semblances’, however men merely hide it with a ‘swashing’ outside.

This covers, if in very simple terms, the aspects of the actor’s work in putting together a character: costume, voice, movement and thought process. These ideas can be strongly connected with Goffman’s theory in which he uses the term ‘personal front’ to describe combination of the components of ‘setting’, ‘appearance’ and ‘manner’ (1959, p.32-35). These three parts, which are each self-explanatory in their role, create ‘the expressive equipment of a standard kind intentionally or unwittingly employed by the individual during his performance’ (p.32).

These three components can certainly be applied in performance. ‘Setting’ is reliant on the directorial concept, which links into my previous analysis of ‘discourse’ and is changeable to an extent within each interpretation. It is worth noting here that many productions that include gender blind casting are set in a ‘timeless’ environment: the blurred lines of the casting choices are reflected within the wider concept.

To recognise how Goffman’s ideas of ‘appearance’ and ‘manner’ manifest themselves in a female actor’s interpretation of a male role, I am going to analyse Fiona Shaw’s performance in Deborah Warner’s production of Richard II at The National Theatre in 1995. Firstly it is a given that the ‘appearance’ of the female actor is reliant upon the costume designer of the production. In the forward for The Routledge Reader in Gender and Performance (1998) Shaw comments that ‘Often the costume was less about me and more about the effect on the other actors’ (p.xxiv). In connection with Goffman’s thinking this could be because costume is indication of ‘the performer’s social statuses.’ In other words, Shaw’s attire had little bearing on the active choices that she chose to take as Richard (the actioning of the text), but rather on the choices that the other actors took in reacting to her.

When Shaw was able to experiment with her ‘appearance’ during the process she states; ‘When I dressed like a man I seemed like a woman in disguise’ (p.xxiv). Elements of disguise in performance can lean towards a comedic element, which in Richard II was clearly not an option given the serious nature of such a large history play. However in a comedy play, disguises can be used as a clever device. In The Comedy of Errors I was certainly ‘a woman in disguise.’ As well as a three piece suit and blower hat I donned a fake glue-on moustache. When it started to fall off, my faulty disguise gave away my womanly clean shaven face. This provided a highly enjoyable comedic moment– for me as the performer trying desperately to keep my moustache attached to my face and for the audience to watch that struggle. It was obvious that I was really a woman for several reasons: I had introduced myself to the audience in the pre-show as Emma and my name could be found in the programme. However given the fact that I looked like a man, there was something very theatrically powerful in the moment when the moustache slipped. Butler describes the concept of ambivalence and subversion of gender as ‘slippage’ (judithbutler.wordpress.com). The audience had believed that I was a man in that moment, so when a part of the disguise ‘slipped’ to suggest otherwise it appeared ridiculous: like a ‘half-baked drag’ act I gave myself away (Chinn, 1997, p.300-301).

To return to Shaw’s work the contradiction between her ‘manner’ and ‘appearance’ was creating a feeling of disparity that was unnerving as the actor who’s wish is bring all the elements of the character together in synchronicity. To describe the final part of the shift of her ‘appearance’ into Richard:

‘I finally cut my hair and wore a mummy-like bandaging which depressed my sex over which I wore a loose shirt and a white leather jacket’ (p. xxiv).

It was not until she found what was truthful to herself in the ‘appearance’ of being a man, that she was able to ‘tap the natural androgyny’ (p.xxiv) in herself. In ridding herself of perhaps her two most womanly features: her hair and breasts, she was able to make the vital ‘imaginative leap’ (p.xxiv) in creating the character.

Once the appearance of the character has been decided on being predominately masculine, what exactly are the shifts in the ‘manner’ of the actor that occur to duplicate it? Shaw comments that ‘the less I tried to play the boy, the more he appeared’ (p. xxiv). This comment seems to reflect the mind-set of the actor as a whole. The director of Washington D.C.’s Taffaty Punk Theatre Co., Lisa Bruneau describes the shifts in the ‘manner’ of her actors in a little more in depth:
“We have found that changing your physical stance changes the impulse,” she said. “Once you change that it can start opening doors to a different perception of information and a different way of responding.” (Derr, Holly W., 2013)

It appears that the physicality of the actor offers a way into the ‘mind-set’ of a man. To follow stereotypes; this can be produced in an opening out of the hips, an upright stance and holding the arms away from the body. In discussing her work on Julius Caesar Harriet Walter states:
‘I had to learn to have confidence that my internal strength will give me some sort of solidity, which is something that I never quite trust when playing a woman.’ (2013)

The words ‘internal strength’, ‘confidence’ and ‘solidity’ can offer a key into a women wishing to find a masculine ‘manner.’

Despite all this information on the shifts in manner, the objective to play a man is ultimately consumed by the need of the actor to play the character’s objective: what do they want? Harriet Walter on playing Brutus says ‘I don’t really operate from what gender they are, particularly in a language play where the important thing is to get your character from the language and plot’ (2013). I was also assured of a similar idea in an interview I conducted in February 2014 with the Artistic Director of Smooth Faced Gentlemen, a British all-female Shakespeare company. Their mission statement states that their aim is for their ‘audience [to] leave affected by the story, the interpretation, the staging, the pace, and the fresh take on Shakespeare’s wonderful tales’ (2014). The phrase ‘fresh take’ here I think is key in understanding that gender is not at the centre of what they do. Yaz Al-Shaater, director of their production of Titus Andronicus affirmed that ‘although there is some physical work on the experience of being a man . . . the actors aren’t mimicking men’ (2014). The artistic director Ashlea Kaye also described the work as character and plot driven; ‘We are looking at their character rather than their gender so we’re telling the story of what they do and why they do what they do.’

Having said this, it cannot be denied that the decision to cast a female actor in a male role could be seen as overtly political; whether that is the production’s aim or not. With regards to observers of Lloyd’s statement who are against her backing of the employment of female actors at the RSC, the anger seems to be rooted in the belief that Lloyd’s decision to have an all-female cast is fuelled by the need to make a political statement. Returning to the Telegraph article, one reader, ‘moonunit’ commented on the online forum: ‘Why bother with Shakespeare when he's only being used as a prominent peg for people to hang their politics on?’ (2013) Rather than be a political cloth on the washing line of Shakespeare, the reader clearly has not considered the fact that women’s Shakespeare performs the vitally important and practical need for the reparation of the lack of female jobs in the theatre. Neither that it might be more about the simple need to experiment and ultimately create exciting theatre.

Section Three – Countering “the fashion”

Despite the fact that there is some adversity towards the work there is also much evidence to suggest that female performer’s interventions in the work of Shakespeare yield rewarding results. Michael Billington compliments both Lloyd’s decision to set Julius Caesar in a women’s prison and her all-female cast in his four star review:

‘It is one thing to have an ingenious concept, another to carry it out. And Lloyd's production proves that female actors can bring a fresh perspective to traditionally male roles’ (2013).

The ‘fresh perspective’ is born out of the fact that most male roles (except perhaps Hamlet) can be approached by the female actor as if it were new writing: there is no catalogue of past performances in which to weigh oneself up against. In addition, there is evidence that the experience is as progressive for the actor to rehearse as the critic to witness the final product. I have shared these moments of revelation working with fellow actors at LIPA. Sarah Folwell said of working on Comedy of Errors;

‘Playing a male part, though small in terms of storyline and text, gave me the freedom to play around and push boundaries I don't usually get the chance to’ (2014).

However, despite the recent surge of large scale productions of Shakespeare plays that have taken over the West End in the last few years (Michael Grandage’s Dream and Henry V or Coriolanus at the Donmar), it is only a handful of these productions which have used cross gender casting. In 2013, Lloyd’s Julius Caesar and Joe Murphy’s production of The Taming of Shrew at the Globe were the only two all-female productions in major London theatre venues. The RSC did not include any gender blind casting in their programming at all.

Given then, that the work is inspiring and invigorating on many levels, what is stopping it from being a regular part of theatre programming in Britain? Part of the reason is certainly steeped in tradition of the boy players. For when all-male productions occur such as Mark Rylance’s Twelfth Night or the work of Propeller Theatre, the publicity that surrounds them causes not so much of a stir. In Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender Lizbeth Goodman outlines that in comparison to all-male productions of Shakespeare, all-female ones ‘are not considered similarly authentic’ (2001, p.71). We have already taken a step forward in the last 450 years in allowing women to play women on a regular basis, so to allow them to play men as well, is possibly a step too far? The deputy director of the RSC, Erica Whyman outlines the problem as ‘the fashion’, which Rosalind outlines at the end of As You Like It, is not ‘to see the lady the epilogue.’

‘I think we might be stuck in a narrative that prefers its strong, authoritative women to be exceptional, enjoys them countering “the fashion” and still hasn’t worked out how to portray them regularly on our stages and screens’ (The Stage, 2014).

The key word here is ‘regularly’. For indeed, it is not Shakespeare’s canon that is threatened by lack of reproduction. In fact it is the opposite, as Lyn Gardner puts it, ‘Shakespeare is on a roll’ (Guardian, 2014) and other critics ask the question ‘Are we living through a golden age of Shakespeare?’ (Sarah Crompton, Telegraph, 2013).

From an artistic point of view, this amount of detail takes time to achieve. Phyllida Lloyd took six weeks to rehearse Caesar and The RSC’s First Encounter The Taming of the Shrew took four. And time irrevocably means large amounts of funding is needed if the company’s budget will cover at least standard equity rate for the actors and technicians plus the design costs. In which case only the larger subsidised theatres can afford to fuel a large scale production using an all-female cast. This does not devalue the work of ‘alternative’ theatre companies such as Smooth Faced Gentlemen, who have worked to great success at the Edinburgh Fringe and other regional theatres. They have provided work for two companies of actors thus far on Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus using minimal design elements and a profit share fee.

Where there are huge budgets involved, then follows the ‘risk factor’ with what it will return in box office sales. One way of avoiding this risk is to cast a big name in the lead role. But ‘star casting’ is an issue in itself. Performances by female actors such as the previously mentioned Fiona Shaw’s or the forthcoming Royal Exchange production of Hamlet starring Maxine Peake are arguably fuelled by the star name in the lead role. Although star casting will ‘open a show’ (to bring in box office sales before the run has even started), there is a concern that these productions ultimately miss out on taking risks or indeed are too flashy because of it. The decision to place a female actor becomes not such a daring decision after all but merely a gimmick. Lyn Gardner states in an article entitled ‘British Shakespeare productions need more than scene-stealing stars’ that ‘anything that encourages audiences to take another look at Shakespeare is fine by me’ (2014). In which I am in complete agreement with, and if it is with a woman in the main role: even better. My fear is that it fuels audiences’ love of that particular actor in question, rather than providing a fresh take on Shakespeare in our 21st century context, which removes any sense of helping the wider project.

Where star casting is not at the forefront of the production’s advertising campaign, the show is unlikely to make it into a major venue. The recent RSC’s gender swap The Taming of the Shrew was performed in neither the Swan nor RSC, despite featuring Katy Stephens and Forbes Masson (both formerly members of the 2009/10 ensemble) as Kate and Petruchio. The practically abandoned Courtyard Theatre was the venue instead, which is now only used for fringe shows, amateur productions and stand-up comedy. After opening the run in Stratford-upon-Avon Michael Fentimen’s production toured to regional theatres and schools offering a platform into Shakespeare for children across the country. Again, I do not wish to devalue the upshots of this production; it is wonderful that so many young children were given the opportunity to get their first glimpse of Shakespeare through a cross-dressing interpretation. However, without getting the production into the mainhouse: is the RSC saying that there is no real future for gender blind casting on the mainstage?

It is true, for critics and audiences alike, sometimes the gender swap just doesn’t work. Michael Billington comments on Neil Bartlett’s 2007 Twelfth Night in which Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian were played by women:

‘ . . . his new RSC production is so odd and arbitrary in its cross-gender casting, particularly in its use of women to play some of the key comic roles, that it doesn't in the end prove anything very much’ (Guardian, 2007).

Having seen the production myself, I have to agree that the casting did not offer the usual hilariousness of these three very comedic roles. My point, however, is that the casting was not right, regardless of the ‘gender bending’ taking place. Sometimes when we take unusual risks with an actor who we think is right for a role it pays off, other times it doesn’t. Whether it involves cross gender casting or not is not part of the matter. As Shaw points quite rightly points out ‘There are no shoulds or shouldn’ts in theatre, only things that work and don’t’ (1998, p.xxiv).

Conclusion (un controtempo: il futuro)

In an article entitled ‘Drag queen? Transgender? Conchita's an ambassador and that's what matters’, Paris Lees attempts to unpack the gender behind the person who ‘has millions of people now finding inspiration in her Eurovision ashes’ (2014). Conchita, the female persona of Tom Neuwrith the Austrian winner of this year’s Eurovision Song contest is almost a ‘successful imitation’ of a woman with her long eyelashes and feminine curves (Chinn, 1997, p.300). She avoids romanticizing womanhood however: her unforgettable beard reminds us that drag requires effort, and the fact that it isn’t just a bit of stubble nods to idea that she is well aware of the ‘inappropriate’ gender that she performs (Chinn, 1997). Hailed as ‘an ambassador for diversity’ in Europe, she offers the idea that our gender options no longer have to be limited in an anti-heterosexual context in 2014.

Although Eurovision and Shakespeare seem to have little in common, I firmly believe that it is through performances such as this we can work towards changing the current repressive structures of gender constructs. The courage of Tom Neuwrith in this mission to promote the tolerance of gender that ‘undoes normative heterosexuality’ (Chinn, 1997, p.306), is encouraging not only for fellow drag artists but for any artist who wishes to question gender norms.

Accompanied by Conchita’s success there has been a recent barrage of articles in the Stage concerning the work of female actors and directors; not only challenging how likely it is that women are given the opportunity to get to the job in the first place, but the roles themselves. There is no doubt that the exploration into the wider feminist mission is moving forward, and I believe we can use this current wave to cement firmly the connection of feminism and Shakespeare. If we jump now, with our eyes wide open, (Chinn, 1997, p.307) we may be able to achieve lasting effects that will see that the next generation of actors will be offered their pick of both the female and male roles of Shakespeare’s canon.

There is certainly a question arising as to whether new writing is now able to offer women what we yearn for in Shakespeare’s verse, but with 21st century female characters. Wasted, the first play by poet and playwright Kate Tempest, opens with a Chorus speaking in a rap-style poetry: ‘When they are speaking the chorus lines, they are all and none of the characters’ (2013). Tempest is joined by Mike Bartlett’s latest play in her Shakespearean pursuits. King Charles III currently running at The Almeida to sell out audiences, is effectively a new history play written in blank verse. However, even in Bartlett’s writing women seemingly play the same old roles. Charles Spencer remarks on a ‘thrillingly sexy performance from Lydia Wilson as Kate’ and ‘Margot Leicester plays Camilla as a woman who offers unconditional love to her needy husband’ (The Telegraph, 2014).

As a final point, I am brought back to Shakespeare’s men, who can surely offer us something far more interesting. In playing them, women can take a stand against playing the roles the often boring and beautiful written for them time and time again. With the RSC’s plans to reopen The Other Place in the future, (an exact date is still unknown) lead by current Deputy Director Erica Whyman, there is hope that the way audiences view Shakespeare’s work will be influenced greatly with its programme of ‘new work, experimentation and artist development’ (RSC, 2013). With Whyman at the helm may there even be a possibility of a new RSC Women’s Group? ‘Are we still afraid of Roaring Girls?’ (2014) she asks. ‘Where do I sign up?’ I reply.

(c) Emma J Bentley


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