The woman’s part: is single-sex casting sexist?

Originally written for The Guardian.

At a performance before Christmas of Propeller’s Henry V – not the funniest of Shakespeare’s works – theatregoers, including myself, were in stitches. The source of our mirth was the scene in which the French princess Katherine and her maidservant attempt to polish their English – a good old-fashioned language gag. But the riotous laughter owed less, I suspect, to the script than to the fact that Katherine had a five o’clock shadow.

Men on stage in dresses, it would seem, hold an eternal fascination. The pantomime dame has become as quintessentially festive as mince pies and tinsel, cross-dressing comedians can raise a belly laugh without even opening their mouths, and all-male casting exercises continue to tickle, intrigue and divide audiences.

Propeller’s decision to be an all-boys’ club has, of course, good historical precedent. Shakespeare wrote with male actors in mind, a fact that becomes relevant to the playful gender games initiated when women disguise themselves as men.

There is, of course, one major drawback to putting men in corsets, even in Shakespeare. As pointed out by Jo Caird in a blog for What’s On Stage, all-male casting filches some of the few great roles written for women. Citing the “chronic under-representation of women on the British stage”, she considers Propeller’s casting policy to be unjustifiable, an argument that carries a lot of clout.

It is difficult to imagine, however, similar objections being raised against exclusively female casts. All-female casting has become almost as common a practice as its male counterpart and is often credited with producing illuminating re-examinations of gender. Just think of Theatre Delicatessen’s exploration of the ways women contort themselves into prescribed roles in their all-female interpretation of A Doll’s House, or the Globe’s experiment a few years back in balancing its all-male productions with The Taming of the Shrew and Richard III performed by casts consisting solely of women.

But if all-female productions can be hailed as delving deep into the tangled gender politics of classic texts, surely the same can be argued of any cross-dressing production. Whether conceived as radical re-interpretation or mere giggle-inducing gimmick, I can’t help but feel that any production that makes a decision so extreme is inherently playing with gender, even if that’s not the primary purpose.

If nothing else, this technique is oddly alienating. In Propeller’s bloody take on Richard III, director Edward Hall and his cast made few concessions to femininity, with not a wig in sight and female attire that was cursory at best. The production’s hulking men in skirts consequently provoked an almost Brechtian jolt, roughly picking up the audience and putting them back down at one remove from the scenes on stage.

By making the familiar unfamiliar and levelling gender differences, single-sex casting can make us look afresh at plays that have become an accepted part of our cultural fabric. This allows audiences to reassess not only the gender relations in these classics, but also the ways in which men and women still treat one another in today’s society.

With Mark Rylance preparing once again to don his petticoats as Olivia in the Globe’s production of Twelfth Night, the theatrical gender-bending shows no sign of waning. It might not always be entirely fair, but single-sex casting remains one of the most effective ways of opening up the gender politics debate in classic plays. Perhaps it’s necessary to be exclusive in order to call for a more inclusive society?

Photo: Manuel Harlan