After more than four hundred years of preservation and reenactment, it’s no wonder that Shakespeare’s plays have lent themselves to experimentation, adaptation, or modernization of various kinds. But I can understand the Royal Shakespeare Company, being the Royal Shakespeare Company, feels it has some dedication to a traditional staging of the Bard’s work. Shakespeare scholars have been in a bit of a flap lately over a quite modern idea indeed: women playing male parts in RSC productions.
Which is why the picture at the top of this article is Dame Helen Mirren in her role as Prospera in Julie Taymor‘s The Tempest. Not an RSC production in any way, but there you go.
Anyway, the whole thing started when Phyllida Lloyd, director of The Iron Lady, voiced the opinion that:
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. Any problems with not having enough men to fill the male roles could be solved by “some gender-blind casting” – and would allow directors to “have some fun”.
This, admittedly strong, statement raised the ire of Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, who strongly disagreed. “Not all productions are going to be in an aesthetic range that will welcome cross-gender casting,” he told The Telegraph. “Casting more women to play men could make it incoherent to a mainstream audience… People going to see a Shakespeare play expect realism and expect men [playing male roles.] This should be about realism.”
Which, in my opinion is a terrible way to argue is point, since actual Shakespearean audiences were perfectly okay with accepting the “realism” of men portraying women, not just occasionally, but in every single female role. But I see his point, and I don’t believe that anyone should be forcing directors to swap character gender if they’d rather not, and I doubt that the “mainstream” audiences who show up to see the Royal Shakespeare Company do Hamlet are looking for anything but a “traditional” take on the play. (I doubt the general mainstream audience is showing up for the RSC in the first place.) But I also don’t think that audiences would find swapping actor genders so distracting as to put a real dent in things: that’s actor genders, not character genders. Crossdressing has a long history in theater, and if theatergoers can already suspend their belief for set lights, trick knives, and paper mache donkey heads, they can suspend it for some ladies dressed up as men in the supporting cast.
The likelihood of anyone legally forcing the RSC to make sure it’s yearly company reaches gender parity is low, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be something they commit to working toward, and adjust their audience’s expectations accordingly. In other words, methinks Dobson doth protest too much.