STAGE STRUCK

Boys will be girls and vice versa, writes Peter Craw­ley

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion - pcraw­ley@irish­times.com

How’s this for in­spired cast­ing? This week it was re­ported that Carola Ste­wart, one of the stars of the Lon­don com­edy Faith­less Bitches (“There’s a name for women like us”), took sud­den leave of the pro­duc­tion for health rea­sons. With lit­tle time to adapt and no ap­par­ent un­der­stud­ies to hand, the role of for­mer porn star Monique Mas­ters was as­sumed by the di­rec­tor of the show, step­ping into Ste­wart’s va­cated stilet­tos at the 11th hour. The di­rec­tor, Harold Fin­ley, is a man.

There’s a name for this sort of thing: cross-cast­ing. It’s a prac­tice as old as the the­atre it­self. From the fe­male im­per­son­ators of An­cient Greece to the boy play­ers of Shake­speare’s Re­nais­sance stage, men have worn the clothes of women on­stage so fre­quently

“Cross­dress­ing is the norm, not the aber­ra­tion, of the­atre”

that one scholar con­cluded that “cross­dress­ing is the norm, not the aber­ra­tion, of the­atre.”

What a norm. Mod­ern prac­tice seems to be­long to one of two dis­ci­plines: it’s ei­ther the hall­mark of a rad­i­cal, know­ing aes­thetic or, at this time of year es­pe­cially, the stan­dard gag of pan­tomime. In re­cent years we’ve had plenty of the for­mer – an all-male The Im­por­tance of Be­ing

Earnest at the Abbey, The Maids played by fel­las cour­tesy of Loose Canon, and var­i­ous boysown pro­duc­tions of Shake­speare from direc­tors Ed­ward Hall and De­clan Donnellan.

It makes some sense with Shake­speare, where the char­ac­ter’s gen­der dis­guises, sud­den trans­for­ma­tions and

the­atri­cal winks lend them­selves read­ily to the sub­ver­sion of cross­cast­ing. But watch Richard Frame as Her­mia in Hall’s re­cent A

Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream. Crew­cut and high-pitched, merg­ing the bulk of a rugby winger and the grace of a bal­let dancer, his per­for­mance drew at­ten­tion to what great parts Shake­speare wrote for women in a the­atre still re­mark­ably stingy with them.

Cross-cast­ing may now be go­ing both ways: New com­pany Idir Mná was set up to ad­dress the deficit of good fe­male parts “in a way that doesn’t in­volve women sit­ting around com­plain­ing about shoes, boys or pe­ri­ods”. It chose as its first play one that doesn’t con­tain a sin­gle fe­male char­ac­ter: David Mamet’s testos­terone-sat­u­rated Glen­garry Glen Ross, now on in the New The­atre.

For those who think that fe­male and male psy­chol­ogy are so pro­foundly dif­fer­ent they can only be dis­cussed in terms of plan­e­tary dis­tances (Venus and Mars, etc), con­sider how eas­ily some char­ac­ters can be trans­ferred. As Aliens di­rec­tor James Cameron once said of Ri­p­ley, the Sigour­ney Weaver role orig­i­nally writ­ten for a man: “You write di­a­logue for a guy and then change the name.” Glen­garry’s Rikki Roma may agree.

In life, x and y chro­mo­somes aren’t added or sub­tracted quite so eas­ily, yet on a stage, where peo­ple rou­tinely trans­form into oth­ers, such bound­aries are never in­flex­i­ble. Just as Carl An­der­son, ini­tially re­jected for the role of Ju­das in Je­sus Christ Su­per­star be­cause he was black, ar­gued suc­cess­fully for a colour-blind con­sid­er­a­tion, per­haps the the­atre is be­com­ing gen­der blind too.

Whether this pro­vides a fresh per­spec­tive or sim­ply a gig­gle, it looks like the bat­tle of the sexes may be tak­ing a cease­fire.

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