Boys will be girls and vice versa, writes Peter Crawley
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.