Cross gender casting in theatre: the facts (as I made them up)

Forbes Masson as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo Simon Annand

Forbes Masson as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo Simon Annand

There has been media discussion lately about cross gender casting, mainly because high profile actresses talked about their desire to play male roles. This is surprising to me. The fact this kind of statement generates headlines that is, not the desire itself. Why would you be an actor and not want to play everything? And equally, why is suspension of disbelief perceived as problematic when it involves gender?

So I decided to think through some of the joys and challenges of cross gender casting. I did almost no research, so feel free to dispute any of my statements and I am sure everyone’s examples will be richer than mine.

1) Some of the discussion is tied with gender inequality and the small number of female roles in classical theatre. While this is true (and inequality isn’t always addressed in modern theatre either), is that poor justification for what is an artistic decision? Truth is, cross gender casting is far more exciting than that and can jolt the imagination in interesting directions, including – but not limited to – plays where gender politics have a central role. The recent The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Company – with men playing women and women playing men – and The Shed’s Blurred Lines – with its all female cast playing all roles – are good examples.

2) It’s almost too obvious to mention, but there is no shortage of cross gender casting in Shakespeare. It is somewhat annoying that most of the traffic is one way. Instead of objecting to all male casts – and I don’t want to contemplate a world without Propeller – I want to see more actresses taking male roles: we had plenty of Hamlets recently, as a result it takes a lot to get me excited, but Maxine Peake playing the prince of Denmark should be something special, as was the all female Julius Caesar at the Donmar last year.

3) Outside Shakespeare and with the exception of men playing women for comedy value, such boldness in casting is rare. Theatre Delicatessen did an all female A Doll’s House in 2011 and often, small roles in classic plays are recast from male to female, but that’s about it. It’s only theatre, why wouldn’t you try something new? When we were discussing cross gender casting on twitter recently, the ideas were plentiful: an all female Uncle Vanya with Frances Barber and Clare Higgins alternating Vanya and the Doctor, & Lindsay Duncan as the Professor; Clare Higgins and Penelope Wilton in No Man’s Land; and David Tennant as Hedda Gabler.

4) Is cross gender casting the same as gender blind casting? Does gender blind casting even exist? I would assume it’s more interesting to use the gender in the interpretation than trying to ignore it.

5) It feels to me that audiences are happy and willing to embrace such choices but media are far too conservative in that discussion. Part of the problem is theatre coverage falls under celebrity culture in media terms. But that’s a bigger discussion.
Completely unencumbered by gender, what are your fantasy casts?

3 responses to “Cross gender casting in theatre: the facts (as I made them up)

  1. The first ever production of Hamlet I saw had a man playing Gertrude and that is the thing I remember most about that production for all good reasons.

    My suggested casting for an all female Mojo is here http://theatre.revstan.com/2013/11/if-mojo-was-performed-by-women-who-would-you-cast.html

    Would also like to see a female Iago, you could have fun with her having been best buddies/slightly fancying Othello and jealous of the attention he now gives Desdemona. Who to play? Anne Marie Duff would be brilliant, I could see her playing a slightly psycho Iago. I think Pippa Nixon would make a very emotionally unstable Iago and Anna Maxwell Martin would be amazing to see having recently experienced her sexually charged portrayal of Regan.

    Having seen Juliet Stephenson in Happy Days I’d like to see her in Waiting for Godot, perhaps with Kathryn Hunter.

    I could see Ben Whishaw playing someone like Rosalind in As You Like It and he has expressed a wish to play a woman on stage. I’m compiling a (very) long list of suggestions…

  2. This piece and RevStan’s comment / suggestions are so wonderful I’m lost to suggest further. I’d pay to see any of these….

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