What’s wrong with all-male Shakespeare?

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Mark Rylance as Olivia

There have been murmurs of disquiet for a while about all-male Shakespeare. Jenni Tomlin said on the Social Justice First website that it, ‘serves to highlight our deep history of sexism and inequality‘ while Jo Caird at Whatsonstage.com worries about how it denies work to women, ‘given the chronic underrepresentation of women on the British stage, I don’t really see how [it] can be justified‘ Recently the objections have been getting louder. In a review of Propeller’s all-male Henry V and A Winter’s Tale Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph said, ‘I didn’t emerge from either of these productions feeling that the exclusion of actresses was especially useful; in many ways it’s just distracting’ and last month the novelist and playwright, Stella Duffy, only half-jokingly, called for women to boycott all-male productions.

Practitioners justify all-male Shakespeare on the grounds of authenticity but, as Stella Duffy points out, Shakespeare’s women were originally played by boys, not men, so Mark Rylance’s middle-aged Olivia in Twelfth Night at The Globe Theatre is no more authentic than casting a woman in the role. This month Equity launched a campaign to improve the gender balance in casting so why, when theatre has embraced colour-blind casting, is men-only casting still considered acceptable?

In her book, Feminism and Theatre, Sue-Ellen Case says the absence of women from the Elizabethan stage reflected their absence from Elizabethan public life leaving male dramatists free to create their own representations of women and have those male constructs embodied by male actors, ‘fictional “Woman” here emerges clearly as an object of exchange between men’. She says women’s roles were played by boys because, ‘Boys, by virtue of their age, were cast in a social role similar to that of women – dependent on and inferior to the adult male. Women could be represented on stage by boys because they shared their social attributes.’

So, if adult men playing Shakespeare’s women is a modern invention rather than an Elizabethan tradition, why is it happening now? Stella Duffy thinks refusing to let women represent themselves on stage is part of a wider denial of women’s rights around the world, ‘If we do not see ourselves here, if our daughters do not see themselves reflected, then we too, lose power. We lose the power to help the other women who desperately need our help’.

The Guardian theatre critic, Lyn Gardner, agrees that, ‘women need to see ourselves reflected on stage, and off it too’. So does Michael Boyd who recently announced the RSC’s 2013 season which will be, in his words, ‘a celebration of women in theatre’. Boyd acknowledges that, ‘It’s still a very sexist world, including in the theatre. We’re part of the culture’ so by inviting Nancy Meckler, Lucy Bailey, Maria Aberg, Emma Rice and Lyndsey Turner to direct in the same season he’s doing his bit to help correct the imbalance, although he might also be hoping to deflect criticism as the RSC passes from its sixth consecutive male Artistic Director to the seventh.

Cross-gendered and gender-blind casting can help interrogate a play, as in Maria Aberg’s current production of King John, but men playing women still outnumber women playing men. Tom Morris, Artistic Director at The Bristol Old Vic, accepts the argument for more women in male Shakespeare roles but he feels, ‘it would have to be a bloody good production for it not to be a meaningless experiment‘. In a recent interview the novelist, Siri Hustvedt, observed that when an artform is feminised it loses status, ‘I don’t think it’s a conscious, hostile act, but an unconscious feeling that seriousness in literature belongs to men, not women’.  When casting men as women is considered scholarship but casting women as men ‘doesn’t prove anything very much’ can the same be said of theatre?

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Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England
  • Noreen M Anthony-Tabar

    During Shakespeare’s time only men were the actors in his or any plays. And all male production was common. So the All women Shakespeare play is a late 21 century production. Check the history.

  • Arobin08

    I find it really hard to believe that men playing women outnumber women playing men. I see advertisements for all-female productions all the time but have never once heard of an all-male play.
    What the heck is Duffy talking about? Men being allowed to put on all-male productions is not hurting or oppressing women any more than all-female productions hurt men. You cannot make the argument that women don’t get to see themselves onstage in any play they go to.

  • Minna

    Thanks for this! I am at this moment at a screening of the film version of this production for a Shakespeare course, and I will refer to your blog in my report on it! 🙂

  • Wayne Myers

    The all-men Shakespeare production, which has nothing to do with original practices, is a late 20th century novelty matched by the emergence of the all-women Shakespeare production. The Hawaii Shakespeare Festival, for example, has, on occasion, staged all-women productions since 2002, including “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “The Comedy of Errors,” “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” “Henry V,” and “Richard III.” What began as concept-driven for that festival has become pragmatic casting.

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